The Question Of Translation: Or, How To Write Correlated History

How can we rewrite our history to make it understandable to US Today?

This is an often asked, and rarely answered question I’d like to give a try at answering.  My main concern is that anyone be able to:

1.  Identify a problem area of Mormon History (particularly when it comes to one’s “faith”)

2. Look over the published literature most readily accessible to one’s eyes

3. Write a book/blog/article which confirms exactly what we’d like to believe about that problem area, which is: Not a Problem Area, Perfectly Normal By Our (secular/orthodox/business) Best Practices Today.

My inspiration for this important task by which we Mormons might set about erasing our own history was a review of a book by a Mr. Brant Gardner.  Now, first, the good thing to know about Mormon Studies is that one need not actually bother reading a book before:

1.  Writing about the book in public

2.  Using the (title of, summary of, or whathaveyou from the) book for one’s own argument, posturing, and rounding up of friends on your side, and

3.  Calling the author names that would make one’s primary teacher faint.

The great thing about this is that one can draw from those who’ve also not read a book, save a little cash, and simply argue against or for another person’s summary of a book (as arguing against the book itself), a book they’ve apparently not read.  So long as one’s community, or peers, all conspire in this magic circle’s drawing, you see, no one need ever read carefully anyone’s book, and we can all pretend to have read everything published, because we can trot out a “like” or “don’t like” which can align us personally with others we also like.

I mean, is there really a difference between what a book argues, and someone’s summary/emotional reaction/kneejerk response to having had that book (or some part of it) before his eyes.  I didn’t think so, either.

Thus, one can “do” history just by going over the representations of texts, because what really matters, you see, is that the “ideas” are preserved from text to metatext to meta-metatext, ad nauseum.  That is a way to begin revising in a Corralated Way.  Begin with the mind, and ignore all the other stuff, and make a lot of presumptions and guesses that otherwise require careful research to resolve.

My example of how to do this correctly is a blog post regarding The Abridging Works, which apparently provoked Mr. Gardner to post his version of what I’m saying about “translation,” after having “gone over” the book (an essay concludes the book, “On Translation”).  The ensuing “debate” was fruitless, as expected.

Now, I admitted in my reply that I’ve not read Gardner’s book, though I fibbed a bit and said I planned on reading it, sometime.  Sure.  But why read his book, when I can read this summary of how a person reacted to reading his book?  This guy liked it, so should I (unless I don’t like that guy!).  What was the book about?  Well, that’s why it’s in a book, you see, because it’s too complex to summarize in a review.  Got it?

What I get from the review is that Mr. Gardner says that the “idea” of the Book of Mormon was deposited into Joseph Smith’s head, in the from of “mentalese” which was then translated into English.  This seems like a perfectly sensible claim (when dealing with something attributed to the Gift and Power of God, where does ‘sensibility’ end?  Isn’t finding that line the starting point?  Anyway).  Mentalese competes with another winner: that Moroni whispered the words into Joseph’s ear.  I don’t think I need to point out the problems of the “whisper game theory,” which is only possible to believe at a certain level of abstraction, the same level which can treat “the Bible” as a word which refers to a single thing, an idea; rather than, say, a many times translated, revised, commmented upon, collection of things which have “the Bible” as part of their title.

Ahem.  Let me point out the historical and logical problems of the Mentalese claim, whether made by Mr. Gardner, or by a guy who read Mr. Gardner, or by anyone who’d like to just up and fill in what was never explained by the guy who experienced it, namely, Joseph Smith.

First: What is the point of the all the hullabulloo regarding the “Gold Plates” if the Mentalese transcript was downloaded into Smith’s brain?  Though the plates were often not physically in front of his eyes, that Joseph had the plates (for a time) does seem fairly important.  Several fellows in the published BoM made quite a stink about preserving the records, hauling them around, keeping them from so-and-so.  And the two stones set in a bow?  Gardner (channeled through the review of his book, ironically) apparently dismisses the stone/s as nothing more than a mind-focuser; but they are called “interpreters”, and were thought to be rather important when it came to interpreting ancient records; that is, of course, if the ostensible downloaded Mentalese version of these tales is to be believed.    In fact, at no point in the published BoM do we have anthing like a theory of Mentalese, which is sort of a problem, in itself.

In fact, one might argue that it was the plates which evidence suggests were “deposited” into a hill, rather than a Mentalese text being deposited into a brain.  But perhaps it’s all symbolic, and Cumorah really means “perietal lobe”, while the hole in Cumorah really was the Pineal Gland.

But if that’s the case, then what were the 3 witnesses seeing, Joseph Smith’s mind?  I think this sort of theory has been trotted out before, but not by apologetics.

One sort of deposit precludes the other being necessary.  Indeed, if such a Mentalese text could be deposited into Smith’s brain, why not simply deposit it into everyone’s brain (including Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, you, me, and so on)?  What about those lost pages from the Book of Lehi?  A Brain Fart?  Forgetfulness, projected onto Martin Harris?  Ah, psychobabble is so good to trot out, and yet, sometimes hides an iron fist in its velvet glove.

In fact, why not simply download the entire archives of Heaven, mentalized into Mentalese, for all to access?  We’d need a search engine, I suppose, but there’s no doubt some form of Google-Mentalese could be drawn up.  And it’d save us publishing costs, having to turn pages, manuals being written, Sunday School lessons on the meaning of a word/phrase from the BoM, talks about it, CES, Missionaries…in fact, I’m starting to see there are many good reasons for depositing the Mentalese edition of the BoM into everyone’s head, whether they want it or not.

Well, what if we aren’t all worthy of such a deposit?

That may be, but now we’ve complicated the question in a way we don’t complicate it when handing out printed texts; does a missionary ask whether an investigator is worthy to hold and read the BoM?  It is an easy thing to trot out speculations to support an initial speculation, and the further we move into Mentalized Abstactions, the easier such a path is to tread.  The end point, of course, is a single universe composed of my mind, contemplating my mind.  Not reality, in other words, as we’ve come to understand it.

Second: What is Mentalese?  I know computer guys like Gardner would have it that language is merely a vehicle for carrying thought, something like a screen for our software, but the evidence is against against such a crude, mechanical perspective.  I am not a computer, are you?

Language seems to be essential to symbolic and creative, inventive and artistic thought of the sort we attribute to most (or some, or a few) humans, and by essential I mean, without it there is no such thought.  Other kinds of thought are possible when language is not present (and never acquired), but not the sort that humans do all day long.  Keep in mind we invented computers, theories of language, philology, calculus, and a few other things my computer refuses to do for me.  Language (as spoken) is another word for a sort of thinking.

That is to say, the “language” we speak shapes the thoughts we have (this is something I’ve demonstrated in my dissertation by doing a history of Mormon theology, though I’ve written what amounts to another book on the subject, not yet finished).  Gives form to airy nothings.

So, though some would like to believe in Mentalese, it remains nothing but a way to fill a hole; that is, a guess based in part on Chomsky’s “deep structure”, a notion which accounts for some of language learning, it seems, but hardly gives us an explanation of language as a spoken, social reality.  If there is indeed no such thing as Mentalese (whatever one calls it: a psychological entity that resides outside language as a social reality), then there is a real difficulty with positing that as an avenue for delivering the Gift and Power of God, that Word.

The logical problem is this: one poses a hypothetical process (depositing in Mentalese) in order to explain a positive, end result.  The process involves a guess which cannot be refined inside the argument it is placed; one can hide this circularity by drawing on hypotheticals from respected disciplines, and without also drawing on the disputes and serious conflicts entangled with the positing of the hypothetical inside the discipline.  That is to say, when one takes a word from a discipline, be sure to not take all the arguments that specialists have over the word’s utility.

Thus, one should draw from summaries, wikis, and popular writings (but cite authoritative texts!) that mention scientific hypotheticals (String Theory/Quantum Physics/Fractal Geometry/Mentalese/Arc of Culture…), and treat these as facts for the plucking and stuffing together.   At a certain point one’s argument requires more hypotheticals, which reaching a certain number become so entangled that they begin to form a seeming coherent, solid, indisputable mass.  You’ll seem like a genius, being able to put together String Theory, Hopi Kiva Rites, Sumerian Philology, and Organic Chemistry.  And who could dispute such a genius?

Such movements in a text, moreover, are not summarizable in a layman’s review, though the words are recitable (e.g., the review of Gardner’s book mentions Mentalese and Eidetic Memory, without engaging with their referents’ existence).   Boo-ya!  Send the book to readers not versed in Mentalese, and hope they haven’t had the download of Celestial Physics/Psychology yet.  Let others then circulate the image of one’s genius by way of summary, and let their sense of humility or playing nice preclude the curtain’s pulling back, for all those who come across the metatexts that stand for one’s book.

So, future Correlated Historian, use words that are circulating popularly, but don’t, for heaven’s sake, muddle up one’s lumping together of these terms by engaging in the fact of their hypothetical nature; and the historical, discplinary reasons that gave rise to the discussion of the hypothetical.  Don’t mention things like: Mentalese was invented on analogy with Esperanto, and was brought forward to free psychology from Skinner boxes; that is, as a hypothetical product of hypothetical deep structure/grammar of the brain/hypothetical mind, which black box was necessary in order to account for the fact that children learn language in a way Behaviorism cannot explain.

So, a black box; a black box (placeholder) rather quickly becomes an actual thing, and five times removed, we end up with using it as an explanation for how the BoM was translated, and that explanation, while not passing muster with linguists or psychologists, is easy to put over self-proclaimed Mormon Studiesists.

But there is a rationale for doing this kind of folk history, and that concerns the way Mormon Studies interfaces with Correlation.

The justifications for Correlation in the 1960s were two: the gospel will be taken to the sort of people who have  a hard time “getting it” (you know, ‘those’ kind of people…”ethnic” types once called Lamanites?); second, that the “gospel” until that decade was a perfectly coherent, ordered, and developed field, so that everything publicly attributed to Joseph Smith through David O. McKay was already Correlated, for it was all in the mind, and in the mind of God.  So, why Correlate?  See point 1: the “lamanites” (and to save money on printing).

Now, keep in mind that correlation would be irrelevent if Mentalese existed, and could be used as a solutions-delivery method by God, The Prophet, or anyone else; even to ‘ethnic’ types.

So, here we have the irony: the existence of the COB, of Correlation, and of the Corporation all are signs that Mentalese is nothing but a hypothesis, and a poor one at that.  The irony is that the supposed existence of a mental language is precisely what is relied on as all the products of Correlation are churned out.  That is: If they can strip down the material to a notional core (seventy words, for example), this can trigger the same notional core in one’s mind, and the Mormons will all be perfectly correlated, one heart, one mind, et cetera, and so on.

But nothing of the sort goes on.  It’s scripts circulating for performance of Mormonness inside some community of usage.

We have people writing books that draw from texts, and from summaries of texts, and reviews of texts about texts…and at no point do we ever seem to have the same notions about the initial text itself.  Brigham Young once said that the BoM would be very different if written a few decades after 1830.  That suggests something not downloaded, except in the vaguest, most generalest sense; in the same sense that anti-Mormons would claim was the source of inspiration for the BoM itself: Ethan Smith’s book; culture; mental problems.  So, ironically, a “mentalese” perspective ends up at the same place an utterly secular guess begins, which is: it’s all in his mind.

As my dissertation attempts to explain, the re-reading of linguistic action as something like Mentalese in Mormon history was both a theological and politcal turn: polygamy can be “believed in” but not “practiced”, intelligences are not discrete, agentive, communicating lifeforms, but rather qualities of mind, for a few examples.  This conversion of speech into “thought” (in fact, “thought” like “sincerity” are merely genres of speech) was precisely the cause of our misunderstanding of our own theology and history, which misunderstanding and relegating to “the mysteries” gave more than a little oomph to the initial editorial committee Lee started calling the Correlation Committee.  So, we find ourselves back inside the hamster wheel of Correlationism.

An alternate theory of translation, it seems to me, ought to be begin with how children read, and with the basic parameters necessary to produce an interpretation deemed “correct”, and that gives us a representation of a book called “the most correct”.

Keep in mind that, one, Smith apparently spoke the words written by a scribe; and two, the published BoM was “correct,” but that what it came from was called the “most correct.”  That gap between the two – the published BoM and the thing written on the plates – is pretty good evidence that Joseph Smith was no mere passive recipient of a thought-ebook-download, and that our ideas about revelation are too easily squished into our ideas of Ideas.

So, how to write a Correlated History?  It’s all in the mind: start with abstract nouns, trot out a few authoritative sciences represented in a few popular, NOVA-circulated words, treat one form of a word as the same thing as another form of a word (“faith” always means “faith”), and with this gooey mess look for all the holes in history you’d like to fill.  Then send your book to others with the same holes, and let them send out stripped down “notional cores” of one’s book.

What is a Mormon? From an anthropologist’s view

Part One of a New Series!

Free Lessons in How to view Mormons like an Anthropologist

Before embarking on a comparison of Tolkien Studies with Mormon Studies, and the “logic” of amateurs and professional practices, I think it might be helpful to outline where I’m coming from.  Hence:

LESSON ONE: The Articles of Faith, in quasi-legalese, of Any Ethnography of Mormonism

1.  “Mormon” is a word with no single, non-discursively dependent referent.  That is, unlike the word-thing relationship between, say, table or chair, Mormons as a referent of “Mormon” do not exist without the word.  This is another of saying “Mormon” is a cultural “construct,” though in a more careful, and analytically fruitful way.  Now we can follow how the term “performatively” creates what it refers to, and the speakers of it likewise as potentially being also what is picked out in the utterance…

2.  To use the word “Mormon” to refer to a person is to put them into a class of things by virtue of some criteria said to be unique to that class.  Where did the class come from?  See Article I.  So, by virtue of usage, and one’s encounters with usage (say, in family circles, in the media, or at a church; let’s call them “communities of usage”), one decides that a certain quality is seemingly unique to whatever one hears referred to as “Mormon”.  That quality is inevitably bound up with speaking (in whatever modality: writing, gesture, etc.), but also the performative effects of speaking are registered to some other seemingly non-discursive creator, such as, spirituality, mentality, faith, region, class, gender….this is a misunderstanding that anthropologists read as a sign of a “native” perspective which then warrants explanation by way of data elicited from the “native” (but not exclusively from them, as they cannot “see” all the complex processes by which they came to be a “native”, as it were).

3.  There is no definition of “Mormon” which is not itself derivative (and creative) of the existence of that class; which class is itself derivative from the existence of the word.  That is to say, every definition of “Mormon” is itself creative of the class of things it would define, and the definition itself derives from the thing it creates by way of usage.  All the “parts are in motion,” though appearing stable from any “native” perspective.  Hence, when looking narrowly in space or time, one can be confounded into believing that “Mormon” actually refers to some language independent thing or person; but this belief is untrue, though compelling and seemingly beyond doubt.  The result (and proof of the essentially sociological-discursive source of the existence of the referent of “Mormon”) are practices designed to “purify” the “authentic” class.  Correlation is one example, but there are many.  Another result (and proof) is the existence of schisms aimed at uniting a more criteria-singular class (“we are gay Mormons”).

4.   The existence of modifiers of the word “Mormon”, such as liberal, gay, true blue, true believing, reformed, uninformed, faithful, worthy, jack, doubting, correlated, uncorrelated, utah, and so on, are proofs that the word “Mormon” works its “magic” by virtue of bringing together relational terms, in a sort of three-card monte.  That is to say, more discrete sociological sub-classes of “Mormon” attempt to give definition to the term, and rationality to the class, and attempt this by drawing on sociological and cultural categories which are independent of the class of things ‘sensed’ to be drawn in by the term “Mormon”.  Thus the demonstrable fictiveness of the term “Mormon” is occluded by posing “essentially” different subclasses which can claim adhereents who can then offer their usage, and their “communties of usage”, of the term against the stereotype of another subclass.  Ethnicities and nationalities are formed by the same “logic”, though these ground their fictive existence in “the body” or “territory” or some other seemingly tangible thing.  “Mormon” is utterly discourse-dependent, and so tends to generate and rely on the generation of subclasses in order to hide the basic truth of its existence.  So it happens that as a result of the discourse-dependent nature of the term, and of classes of persons said to be referred to by this term, sociological categories emerge within distinct “communities of usage”; such groups have as a primary interest the continuance of misunderstanding of the discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Having an alternate, opposed, subclass of “Mormons” is of primary importance in furthering that misunderstanding.

5.  The ways and means of forming new “subclasses” or of “purifying” the class of things referred to by “Mormon” depend on the technologies of communication, and on the relative capital required to acquire, maintain, and control these technologies.  Communities of usage can be enlarged in this way, though at the risk of exposing the essentially discourse-dependent nature of their being.  Hence, many “cheap” ways of performing “Mormonness” emerge, ways which are easily ranked according to their status and validity, as defined (implicitly, of course) by those in charge of the community of usage.  Other “communities” emerge which claim to exist “outside” Mormon circles, and this is, too, a matter dependent on the processes described above.  No blog, for example, has a way to derive a definition of “Mormonness” that is not itself derived from pre-existing values attributed to “fashions” of speaking.  Over time Mormon blogs, like any other discourse-dependent community, develop ways to regulate the boundaries within which Mormonness is performed.  As a result, technologically “new” communities of usage typically extend the cultural dynamics previously at work, rather than alter them.

6.  Capital, econonic or cultural, plays a describable, analyzable role in every community of usage.

7.  As a result of Articles I-VI, the term “Mormon Studies” is a “native” classification of a particular way of “speaking” or of producing texts; the subject being “Mormons” or, more abstractly (and thus releasing the user of even the slightest methodological accountability) “Mormonism”; and the subject being treated within existing, “Mormon”-independent genres common to what might be called “academia”.  What is easily acquired from academia are those things that are now said to give Mormon Studies its being; this is a matter of capital, largely, and its increasingly unequal distribution.  In reality, however, the structural and discourse-independent processes which make scientific inquiry possible are not easily acquired.  Given, moreover, that the terms discussed in these genre-imitations, and their seemingly “natural kind” classes there treated, in fact result from the native’s conflation of “orders” of usage, classification, and definition, it is then true that “Mormon Studies” as a word used to describe the production of texts is a word derived from the same processes which construct and maintain “communities of usage”.  The Study of Mormons/Mormonism are thus not independent from the same forces described above.  Such communities, to repeat, have as their primary function the surveillance and sanction of the use of the term which gives them “being”, and for this reason how one “speaks” (and so “performs” Mormonness), in the most general sense, is of principle concern.

These Articles are a stable beginning for actually understanding how “Mormons” and “Mormonism” can be understood from a position that is not itself derived from the communities that use the same terms.   That is to say, any position which privileges one native community’s use of “Mormon” over another is a position bound up with the power, capital, and other “forces” (let’s say, for now) that generated the misunderstanding among speakers, a misunderstanding that the term’s referent is not dependent on language, but is somehow a “naturally” existing thing.  Translation: to define “Mormon Studies” without defining “Mormon” from criteria independent of the processes which make the term a sociologically living thing is merely to use the capital, power, and force of, say, academic genres to do what “fundamentalist”, “liberal”, “true believing”, “X-Y-Z” Mormons have been doing for many decades.  As a result, Mormon Studies is merely a translation of Mormonism into another sphere, and by that translation, a non-circular understanding of “Mormon” itself becomes an impossibility.