A literary style, darkly

February 16, 2010 at 5:35 am 5 comments

| Gabriel |

The core theoretical statement of my recent Oscars article with Esparza and Bonacich (ungated version) is:

This mismatch between the essentially collaborative nature of most arts and the essentially individualistic nature of most awards provides us analytic leverage to see how individual achievements are assessed when critical observers have access only to the collaborative efforts within which these achievements are embedded. We do not see individual talent face to face, but through the glass darkly of social context and team effort.

In the course of getting this article to publication, I’ve found a lot of people don’t like the phrase “glass darkly.” I think the real issue is simply that they aren’t familiar with the reference to the KJV of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13):

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Given that many people don’t get the reference, why use it? Basically, I believe in literary style which is why I didn’t ditch it the first time somebody misinterpreted it or said it sounds weird. I can break down the style issue into a few parts:

  1. It powerfully expresses the idea that our awareness is limited, whether that be a limitation on the ability to perceive the kingdom of God in Paul’s example or the limited ability to perceive individual merit in my example. This idea of the limits of perception is the usual meaning of the phrase “glass darkly” and is why Philip K. Dick, among many others, has worked with the reference.
  2. One of the running themes in the paper is the charismatic nature of art, and the several religious allusions (“consecration,” “Matthew Effect,” “Advent,” “glass darkly”) in the paper help set the tone that we’re dealing with something transcendent and not wholly rational. This is why we didn’t use the slightly more familiar secular reference of “shadows in a cave.”
  3. 1 Corinthians 13 KJV is a beautiful and relatively familiar passage from one of the core documents of the Western tradition and I have a normative and aesthetic belief that both the Bible and the secular classics ought to remain in the cultural repertoire. In this sense, if some people don’t recognize the reference it makes it all the more important to use it, as an act of cultural preservation.

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Memetracker into Stata Soc of Mass Media, weeks 6 and 7


  • 1. brayden  |  February 16, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Hey, I get it, and I like it. Kudos on the great paper!

  • 2. CSR  |  February 16, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    I think you just need commas around ‘darkly’ like the KJV has. Your use of the metaphor is great.

  • 3. perchesk  |  February 17, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I agree that cultural or religious references are appropriate in journal articles when they clarify meaning (as your use of “through a glass darkly” does). Looking forward to reading the final version of the article!

    BTW, have you read The Cult of Statistical Significance? The authors are great writers and use many cultural, religious, and literary references.

  • 4. gabrielrossman  |  February 17, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    brayden, thanks

    CSR, the original version of the article had a comma but i decided to add the clarifying phrase “of social context and team effort” and then the comma didn’t work.

    christine, i haven’t read “the cult” but i have read some of the associated articles. on a similar subject of reifying statistical significance, check out erin leahey’s article.

  • 5. Ari Adut  |  February 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    If the reference was good enough for Ingmar Bergman (check out the haunting 1961 movie with the title), then it is good enough for the sociology of cinema.

    Sociology needs to be more literate, not less!

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