Monday, May 29, 2006

A Preternaturally Bizarre Juxtaposition: Close Down Call-Outs

The less-than-comatose book reader (assuming one still reads books at all) may have noticed that many books now contain call-outs within the main text. (This has long been common in magazines and newspapers, but is more rare in books.) In fact, some have so many call-outs that one wonders if there is a main text at all. In these cases, the texts have been decentered, destabilized, and rendered eccentric--and, of course, rendered thoroughly postmodern: no linear line of thought is privileged; it is all pastiche, patchwork, fragmented. I seldom read these kind of books, since I'm not a postmodernist. Nevertheless in a preternaturally bizarre juxtaposition, the best book I have read this year, the one meriting the most underlining and notation—the one that more people I know need to read than any other I’ve read in recent memory—is pocked with call-outs. While the book is adamantly and intelligently critical of postmodernism and its effects on the church, one thing about the book is essentially postmodern: the use of call-outs.

The book is David Well's, Above All Earthy Pow'rs: Christ in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2006). I hope to review it elsewhere, but suffice to say it is a work of profound theological depth and cultural astuteness. Yet, it features a fair number of call-outs. Mind you, the call-outs are not sound bites, or slogans; they are rich statements by social critics and theologians. Yet, the call-out disorients the reader from the logical flow of the text, even when the call-out is in thematically harmony with the surrounding text (as it always is in this book). You don't know when to read it, since it interrupts the main text. It is disorientating. This was pointed out by one of my young students in Introduction to Philosophy, which I taught last term at Arapahoe Community College. When asked to comment on the text, Questions that Matter by Ed Miller and Jon Jenson, a young coed said, “It is hard to know what to read when because of all the boxes and call-outs.” She was quite right.

We already inhabit a culture of perpetual perceptual interruption: we are interrupted by cell squawkers, commercials, songs not allowed to finish in the radio, pop-ups bombarding out Internet use, photographs of female models wearing tight tea shirts with conservative slogans in the middle of editorials at www.townhall.com, and so on. The book, one hopes, is an entity, a place, where interruptions should not occur—even textual interruptions. But that is what a call-out is: a textual interruption. If an author wants to feature a thought, it should be incorporated into the structure of the argument; it should be well-fitted into the exposition of ideas. Thoughts should not be flashed on the page without a clear connection to what comes before and after.

Subtitles are not part of the running text and are usually not complete sentences, yet they introduce what follows, and if not overused, are quite apt. Subtitles provide markers or a signs for cognitive navigation. Call-outs, on the other hand, are based, essentially, on the marking methodology (something Wells rightly denies has any place in the church): the consumer’s attention must be grabbed by the outstanding, the exceptional, the hypertrophied. So, the call-out is larger and darker than the rest of the text. You eyes are drawn to it, as they might be drawn to a photograph. (Above All Earthly Powers, mercifully, has no photographs.) But as your eyes are drawn, your thoughts are distracted. This postmodern infection could be easily arrested by simply transforming all the call-outs into elements of the running text. One hopes that a second edition of Above All Earthly Power will do just that.

13 comments:

nancy said...

Wells' book, which has been collecting dust on my shelf for quite some time, has just been bumped up in the rather looong queue. Guess I better pick up a few dozen bottles of white out before I dive in.

Douglas Groothuis said...

White out, indeed! Now there is an ancient technology.

Make sure to copy the call-outs before sending them to a whitewashed death, because they are all excellent and noteworthy--they are simply missplaced. It is something like a drum solo--albeit a good one--in the middle of vocal performance.

Susan said...

DRG

Do authors have any control over how the text is laid out in final form or is that all the publisher's doing?

SJA

Douglas Groothuis said...

SJA:

They have some control, but not total. Odds are the Wells was bullied into the call-uts. I should try to ask him.

DG

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doug,

Would it be fair to say that the call-outs become the text?

It seems to me that a text is more than the content of what is being spoken: a text is more than the propositions being asserted. The meaning of the text seems to also be intimately connected to the presentation of that same text. The more the text is visually manipulated via call-outs, etc. the more the text is transformed from written literature into a visual artistic presentation. The lines are blurred between literature and art. The literature becomes the art.

When this is the case, the affect of the text moves into the arena of the aesthetic. The affect that the text produces becomes on par with the propositions being asserted. When I go to an art gallery the point of those works hanging on the wall is to produce something in me - an aesthetic reaction. So, in the example you give, it seems that the text is being transformed into a mixture of propositional content and aesthetic reaction. The lines are blurred....

Is this right? Is this wrong? If you're looking for pure, propositional content you would be disappointed. I would say that it depends upon the intended purpose of the text.

Douglas Groothuis said...

JE:

Those are thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections, to which I write:

1. Inscription is intrinsically aesthetic since a medium must be chosen, and because that medium--the actual type--has some aesthetic value, whether functional or ornate or something in between. Consider our choice of fonts even for emails and other written documents. This itself is an element of art.

2. Books that emphasize exposition--the orderly development of ideas through words--should center on words to communicate arguments and abstractions. But those words should not be fragmented, made discontinuous by call-outs or other distractions. (Consider any recent book by Leonard Sweet.)

3. The ultimate aesthetic for a text should be the truth of its propositions and the beauty of its style. God is a God who speaks, who is beautiful, and who is truth.

jc said...

I too would like to know whether it was Dr. Wells choice to have the call-outs.

Douglas Groothuis said...

I have emailed Dr. Wells about the call-outs, but have not heard back yet.

Fletcher said...

As an amateur who likes to write about Christian apologetics, cults, etc. I sometimes find it challenging to come up with something new to say on these subjects. I find myself resorting to call-outs, then removing them and trying to rethink or reword what other books have already said.

I do this primarily because the unbelievers or cult members I know aren't about to read a book written to refute their views, UNLESS it is something that I myself wrote.

Ecc 1:9 tells us "there is nothing new under the sun", which is often how I feel when writing. However, as Dr. Groothuis once said in class (and I only took one class) "it's better to be true than new".

Interestingly, I've been finding that I come up with the most creative ideas when I am thinking about or doing something unrelated. I think I need to carry around a dictaphone. Oh wait, I think my ultra high tech cell phone has that feature... I'm off to figure that one out. "Note to self"

Douglas Groothuis said...

Yes, good ideas may come at strange times, even unbidden. So, be ready to write them down or record them. Intellectual percolation is somewhat unpredictable--that is, if you are really thinking for yourself. Ask the Holy Spirit to make you as smart as possible!

Douglas Groothuis said...

Remember that there is a difference between a call-out and an indented quote that fits the flow of the prose.

Douglas Groothuis said...

This is the response Dr. Wells gave me about the call-outs:

"The call-outs were not against my will and I thought served my purposes quite well."

So, now we know. They are really only a minor irritation; the book is superb. Read it!

jc said...

Dr. G,
I'd be interested to know what Dr. W thinks about this post of yours.