Franco Moretti’s Theology and BYU Approved Soft Drinks: On Learning to See, and Not See

This post was written by Matt Wickman, Director of the BYU Humanities Center

My initial motive for writing the blog post this week was to bring some attention to an event our BYU Humanities Center is hosting this Thursday, September 28th. Hester Oberman, of the University of Arizona’s Department of Religious Studies and Classics, is our colloquium guest, and she will be discussing her research in the emergent field of medical humanities. Oberman was part of a team of scholars investigating this subject who were supported by a Mellon grant awarded to institutions affiliated with the global Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. Her research has expanded into a compelling book project about the influence of faith traditions and spirituality in health care and medicine. (I took that description from her faculty webpage.) Hester and I met on a plane ride to London in June of last year. She expressed curiosity about Mormons generally and BYU specifically; I thought our faculty should know more about medical humanities generally and Hester’s work specifically. And so, we invited her to campus.

Oberman’s visit is a kind of cousin, call it, to one of our Humanities Center initiatives. Twice per year we bring scholars to campus whose work animates or otherwise addresses faith in some imaginative way. We call this our Faith and Imagination lecture series. Our official series guest this semester will be Romana Huk, a professor at Notre Dame and the general editor of the journal Religion and Literature. During her November 10 visit she will lecture on a British modernist (and anti-war) poet who articulated the struggle to discern Christ in everyday life, including in conditions of trauma and squalor.

Last week marked a more banal, but publicly far-reaching, exercise of faith and imagination: BYU announced it would begin selling caffeinated sodas. This has been the subject of no little attention, much of it humorous and/or railing. The Mormon historian Matthew Bowman, a writer I respect—and I underscore that respect in light of the thoughts that follow—turned a slightly sinister eye on the announcement in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post:


Back when there were no caffeinated sodas on campus, the university claimed it was because there was no demand. Today — all of five years after that announcement — the university indicates it is merely responding to students’ requests. It’s only the market, BYU would like us to believe. Nothing to see here.


But there is almost certainly more to see, Bowman argues, whether through reflection on the evolving historical application of the Word of Wisdom (the LDS health code that “is comparable to Jewish kosher laws”), or by considering the longstanding, almost ludic relationship between Coke-swilling and the university honor code (“For many students, a run to a 7-Eleven just off the BYU campus for a Coke or a Dr Pepper was a way to assert moral independence without incurring the academic and social penalties that a violation of the honor code would generate, because it was not a violation”), or by envisioning BYU’s announcement as some further sign of its capitulation to the almighty market.

I’ve grown generally uninterested in stories that try to forge connections between the Church and malevolent power. Admittedly, I’m no Church historian, and there’s a lot of colorful material out there. But I almost always find such stories overheated and underinformed; they’re bad literature even when they claim to be good history. Bowman doesn’t go to those heated lengths in his thoughtful column, though he airs a little scandal for those drawn to that scent by mentioning another recent tension involving BYU’s honor code, this one regarding university policies concerning sexual assault. The connecting thread, he suggests, is the tension each incident poses to the honor code. Now, I get the association: where does one draw the honor code lines, exactly, whether over matters sublime or ridiculous? What is more, like Bowman, I applaud the university for doing what many of us take to be the right thing in reconfiguring parts of the honor code to protect victims of sexual assault. But BYU going soft on soft drinks … c’mon man. Any line of reasoning conjoining the two seems taken from the famous train of association in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain.” And Joyce conceived of that line ironically.

The great BYU Cola Liberation Movement, as I understand it, seems born from humbler origins, namely, from an impulse to disentangle such ungainly (Joycean) associations, allowing BYU to adhere to the Word of Wisdom without defining it more aggressively than the Church. I like to imagine the new decision as symptomatic of emerging social imaginary, one where BYU, like a lot of the best people I know, seems to be trying harder not to try so hard about things that don’t matter all that much.

You want a good reason not to drink Coke? It’s bad for you. All sodas are. My wife won that argument in our family years ago. Any contention that goes further than that is casuistry. (She’s still working on me when it comes to, say, my dietary ratio of sugar to vegetables.)

To me, what really stands out about the whole announcement is its blissful dullness. It bears few of the hallmarks of prophetic pronouncement (unless President Uchtdorf’s personal experience with “a diet soda that shall not be named” qualifies—and it doesn’t) or insidious social allegory (sorry, but I don’t discern “The Man” of capital lurking in its shadows). And beneath the dullness is something good, at least to my mind: a desire, perhaps even a capacity, to see religion differently, and maybe more broadly, by not purporting to see it where it isn’t.

Speaking of (not) seeing things where they aren’t, a publication of mine appeared in print last week—one about which I’d been a little nervous. It was commissioned for a section of the current issue of PMLA devoted to Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading. Titled “Theology Still?” it makes an outrageous and patently ridiculous claim: “Moretti may be one of our great religious writers.” No, he isn’t. Far from it. He rarely writes anything about religion, and when he says two words about it, or about God, they’re generally derisive, sarcastic—of the Joycean, “featherbed mountain” variety.

So, why do I link Moretti with “theology”? The term is actually Moretti’s. On several occasions in Distant Reading he calls the standard literary interpretive practice of close reading “a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them,” engaging them instead as historical data analyzed by pattern-discerning computer technology. Given this ambition, I point out the simple irony of several scholars close reading Moretti’s book for PMLA: “we create a forum like this one, and we read Distant Reading (almost) religiously. We engage in what Moretti calls a ‘theological’ exercise, which shows we don’t entirely believe what he writes. Or what we read.”

There’s more to Moretti’s “theology” than that, to be sure—things that are far more interesting. For example, I discuss how Moretti has compelling things to say about the being, appearance, and crisis of literary history, which strike me as worthy subjects for any theology, even one dedicated to so terrestrial a topic. And I find especially provocative the dramatic way that Moretti evokes the idea of seeing rather than reading literary history by creating digital visualizations that enable us to take in the rise and fall of entire genres at a single glance. Forgive me for quoting myself; my point will become clear in a moment:


What [Moretti] desires is something beyond belief, beyond the reach of mere interpretation. I am struck here by the similarity between his account … of the spellbinding effect of encountering a problem for which he had no solution—and of finding, in that crucible of sublime incapacity, a critical raison d’être—and Talal Asad’s description of religious compulsion: “it is possible for someone to encounter something unpredictably that transforms her, to be gripped through her senses by a force . . . without having to interpret anything.” To see, and to see so clearly, so vividly—to be in the presence of history so vibrantly—that it seems almost immediate, unimpugnable, there: this is the experience Moretti essentially professes and proselytizes. Distant reading may demystify history, but in his conception its practice almost becomes a form of mysticism.


Okay, maybe; “a form of mysticism,” at most. At one level, theology as I invoke it in this article is merely figurative and a little sarcastic; it has fun with Moretti’s trope in his same spirit. But as I also clarify in the essay’s conclusion, I appreciate Moretti’s work for its (even vaguely) theological associations. It is that kind of thing, that allure—evocative of something larger than itself, more meaningful than itself—that I find most powerful and transformative about virtually all the work I love in the humanities. As a person of faith, I love how any instance of dynamic thinking potentially expands my vision from, say, literary history to things beyond it: the richness of what it means to be human and what that means when I think about people I love; the spiritual intensities of everyday life; the watermark of the divine in the quotidian.

But it’s precisely the opposite impulse I find myself applauding in BYU’s great Cola Liberation Movement: in Bowman’s words, “Nothing to see here.” What I appreciate there are the implied limits of would-be theological vision, the welcome meaning of meaninglessness. It prompts me to ask whether I’ve learned the lesson I’m extolling here.

Seeing more, seeing less, seeing otherwise—above all, perhaps, learning how to see: I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that principle lately. It describes my aim as a scholar and teacher, it’s what lies at the heart of the Humanities Center’s Faith and Imagination series, and it leads me back to the work of this week’s guest, Hester Oberman. The subject of her presentation, faith traditions and spirituality in health care, evokes at once the far reaches of medical science and some of the most iconic Biblical episodes about healing (in which blindness features prominently). Such research also implicitly addresses the role of the humanities—of narrative, and of language we accord to intense and ultimate experiences—in helping us make connections, in helping us see. Or, when circumstances require it, helping us not make them: helping us see nothing at all.


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1 Comment

  1. Terrific post here, Matt, as you offer all sorts of food for thought. I hadn’t seen the Bowman WP piece, so thanks for that link. And I’ll look forward to reading your PMLA essay later this week.

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