The Power of Point of View

Perspective Criticism Meets SFL Genre Theory: With Ruth 4:1-6 as a Test Case

Zach_Dawson_Pictureby ZACHARY K. DAWSON   With this discussion I wish to show how a fuller explanatory potential of perspective criticism is brought to bear when situated within a Systemic Functional Linguistic (SFL) framework. It is my hope that this post will be a small catalyst for discussion given that I believe that perspective criticism and SFL can have a bright future together in biblical studies. As a method that is capable of getting at the ideological inner workings of narrative texts, perspective criticism can evaluate the subjective variations that occur within socially instituted discourse forms—genres—when oriented within a sociolinguistic paradigm. Thus, I will demonstrate that when perspective criticism is constrained by SFL genre theory (as most recently developed by J. R. Martin), what yields is the identification of a text’s promoted value positions/ideological stances, but with a more context-sensitive projection of the social influence that a text exercised on its putative audience. I will use Ruth 4:1-6 as a test case.

From an early age children begin to understand typical genres characteristic to their social contexts. This is because genres assume patterns of meaning, which result in their taking on predictable social functions, (e.g. a recipe tells how to make a dish). As a result, social agents become socially attuned to expect certain outcomes from a genre, which further enables them to engage with discourses in a socially adept manner. Martin and Rose provide a succinct definition of genre: “A genre is a staged, goal-oriented social process,” (Martin and Rose, Working with Discourse: Meaning Beyond the Clause [2nd ed., New York: Continuum, 2007], 8). Given this multistep functionality, a discourse’s genre can become exceedingly complex, even having other genres embedded within it, (e.g. a joke included in a lecture). Bakhtin in his exploration of this linguistic phenomenon helpfully provides the linguistic categories of ‘complex genres’ and ‘simple genres’ to facilitate coherent discussions about texts (Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968], 61-62); this distinction will be vital for analysis in this discussion’s selected text and will be discussed below.

Genre, as understood here, assumes that discourses function ideologically; when a writer purposefully takes up pen and paper his or her value positions and beliefs get encoded in text in such a way as to attempt to bring about some desired effect on the audience (i.e. social change). The observation about genres represented here explains that power is exercised by competently employing the right discourse ‘form.’ In doing so, Lemke explains, “[Genres] also function to legitimate, naturalize or disguise the inequities they sustain. They function to get us thinking along particular lines, the lines of a common sense, which are not as likely to lead to subversive conclusions as using some other discourses might,” (Lemke, Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics [Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1995], 13).

Adopting the Bakhtinian terminology introduced above it becomes appropriate to say that in the complex genre of ‘short story’ (the literary form to which the book of Ruth belongs) there gets embedded simple genres. These simple genres fulfill their own goal-oriented social processes, though they do so in a subservient manner for the complex genre in which they are intentionally situated. One identifiable simple genre in the book of Ruth is the legal negotiation between Boaz and the close relative in 4:1-12. In the present discussion, analyzing vv.1-6 will suffice to identify this genre’s point of view character and the value positions construed therein.

At this point it is important to remember the widely accepted assumption that narrators do not construe information objectively, but instead promote their own subjective stances in such a way that they ‘steer’ the projected audience toward aligning with certain value positions. This ‘evaluative steering’ takes place through point of view crafting—“the end toward which the various components of point-of-view manipulation work,” (Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012], 10). Further, Yamasaki draws the helpful distinction between ideology functioning at the macro level and the micro level; a discourse will have an overarching stance, but through means of characters’ stances other various evaluative signals get construed, (Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 98-99). Aiding the description of this distinction is the complex genre/simple genre distinction made earlier to isolate specific social functions of simple genres in light of the overall purpose of a text determined by the complex genre. Thus, simple genres function to allow analysis of micro ideology in texts. Taking this account of genre theory let us now consider Ruth 4:1-6.

Prior to chapter 4 the audience has been predisposed to empathize with Boaz, though Ruth and Naomi have occupied the positions of point of view focus, (cf. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], 230). The first section in chapter 4 constitutes its own simple genre in the discourse, namely an ancient public transaction of rights and property whereby the predicted outcome would be a settled legal negotiation; this is indeed a staged, goal oriented social process. Important for the interpretation of this embedded simple genre are those constraining factors leading to its opening, particularly that the narrator has led the audience to want Boaz to assume the role of redeemer, not only for Naomi’s land, but for Ruth as well. Thus, the predictable process of this simple genre incites apprehension within the audience.

Right out of the gate (literally) in v.1 the narrator positions the audience to converge with Boaz by invoking the spatial plane; Boaz’s name is fronted in a S(Topic)-V construction, which functionally switches the agent focus, (cf. Holmstedt, Ruth: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text [Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010], 10, 180-81). With regards to the temporal plane, the first two clauses provide summary material of processes—particularly Boaz’s walk to the gate—that would take longer than the permitted narrative time. Therefore, minimal converging takes place thus far, but the opening of the next clause shows a progression in the narrator’s point of view crafting. The use of והנה (“behold!”) construes Boaz’s perceptual point of view—an invoking of the psychological plane; such is the perspectival function of this lexeme. The narrator led the audience up to the gate with Boaz and had the audience view Boaz taking a seat in the two prior clauses, but then immediately thereafter the ‘camera’ shoots from a different angle—Boaz sees the close relative he went to find. Thus, the function of this term here is to provide interior vision; the audience sees through Boaz’s eyes, and thus is merged with him, (see Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 47-48; cf. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994], 62, 92).

A lexical oddity appears immediately after Boaz is established as the point of view character. The noun phrase אלמני פלהי (often translated as “Mr. So-and-so”), the address to the close relative, has been investigated extensively for answers pertaining to its origin, which led Berlin to conclude that this puzzle has successfully detracted scholars from seeing the narrator’s explicit intrusion into the text, (Berlin, Poetics, 99). The sentence structure of v.1 does not require the use of a name; the narrator had the semantic choices to employ the common vocative אדני (“sir”) or to leave the man unaddressed entirely. Thus, the appropriate question to ask is not why the narrator left this man anonymous, but instead, why did the narrator choose to leave this character anonymous in this manner? Contrary to Berlin, who explains this ambiguous language as means of making the narrative more story-like (Berlin, Poetics, 101), a more critical point of view analysis indicates that the vague way of naming (or really not naming) the close relative softens the focus on the close relative (cf. Martin and White, Language of Evaluation: Appraisal Theory in English [New York: Continuum, 2007], 138-39), and thus distances the audience from this agent. Therefore, in the staging of this legal negotiation the audience is both merged with Boaz and distanced from the close relative.

After the elders of the city were gathered (v.2), the extended dialogue that ensues (vv.3-6) invokes the temporal plane, slowing down the ‘narrative time’ significantly to the point of pacing in stride with ‘story time,’ which causes the audience to converge with the point of view character. Further, the dominant role of Boaz’s direct discourse converges the audience with Boaz; the narrator’s voice disappears leaving the audience to experience Boaz’s words in real time; this constitutes ‘scene material,’ a relative rarity in biblical narrative, (Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 73, 84). The informational plane is at work this whole time as well; the audience shares the same information with Boaz, bringing about no divergence on this front, but such is not the case for the close relative who receives new information from Boaz that the audience already possesses. Thus, the information plane works double duty, placing the audience in proximity to Boaz and distancing the audience from the close relative.

Even though the close relative comes to possess the same information as Boaz convergence never occurs given that his immediate response misaligns him with the promoted value position to redeem Ruth; it is the information regarding Ruth the Moabitess that redirects the close relative’s decision making, which reveals his ideological stance. The divergence on the ideological plane that takes place here when the close relative assesses all the information indicates that the redemption of Ruth assumes the first order in value positions in this simple genre of the legal negotiation. Thus, what a point of view analysis unearths here is the evaluative signals that the value position being promoted is the taking of Ruth as a wife, the legitimizing of integrating a foreigner into Israelite society.

What we find in the simple genre of the legal negotiation in the book of Ruth is a discourse form where the audience knows what to expect—a legitimate legal decision. Having this stage set, the narrator aligns the audience with Boaz’s actions and intentions through a host of perspective maneuvers, which reflects his ideological stance. The close relative’s decision not to redeem on account of Ruth’s incorporation—a decision not dishonorable, but viewed as negative nonetheless—provides contrast in monitoring Boaz’s micro ideological stance. The other means of distancing the audience from the close relative only go further to naturalize Boaz’s stance. In the end, the character whose actions are to be positively evaluated reveal that the integration of a foreigner into Israelite society is the promoted value position realized in this simple genre, which is, again, legitimized by its legality.

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