Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Enmeshed in Significance

Clifford Geertz, paraphrasing Max Weber, famously wrote that a human being "is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun". Thinking about my writing problems, I'm wondering if I have spun webs where everything is of equal significance and I can no longer distinguish north from south or inside from outside. My writing project should be a forest I manage but it has become acres and acres of trees I need to tend to and prune. I take care of one and there are still miles before me.

Even though my interest has never flagged, it often seems overwhelming. I can become riveted by the smallest of details that seems, for that moment, to have been imbued with significance. Distracted by a million tangents that have become crucially important for that moment, every aspect becomes invested with significance that is usually completely out of proportion to its ultimate importance.

This trait annoys me in my theologian friends because it seems like they project their own religious views into objects or moments or persons that rob that entity of its own identity and ability to define itself. Human beings are symbol-making creatures but that should be something that enhances these entities/events and doesn't impose a meaning upon them.

The ethics of nonfiction writing. The whole process is one of interpretation, of making distinctions, analyzing consequences, passing judgments. At times I think a touch of arrogance would help me handle this responsibility better, to care less about properly representing the perspectives of my subject(s) and care more about accomplishing the goal at hand.

Then I realize that it is actually humility that I probably need, to realize that I never need claim to be the definitive voice but just one offering some truth and insight as I see it. That doesn't help entangle me from these webs but perhaps I'll be more patient with myself during the process.