Keyness in Texts edited by Marina Bondi and Mike Scott(Studies in Corpus Linguistics: John Benjamins) This is corpus linguistics with a text linguistic focus. The volume concerns lexical inequality, the fact that some words and phrases share the quality of being key – and thereby reflect or promote important themes – in some textual contexts, while others do not. The patterning of words which differ in their centrality to text meaning is of increasing interest to corpus linguistics. At the same time software resources are yielding increasingly more detailed ways of identifying and studying the linkages between key words and phrases in text databases. This volume brings together work from some of the leading researchers in this field. It presents thirteen studies organized in three sections, the first containing a series of studies exploring the nature of keyness itself, then a set of five studies looking at keyness in specific discourse contexts, and then three studies with an educational focus.
"All words are equal, but some are more equal than others" (adapted from Orwell's Animal Farm)
Lexical items enjoy equal status in the lexicon of a given language, but their importance varies from the point of view of text. Each individual word form contributes to the construction of meaning in text, but only some words are key-words, i.e. words that play a role in identifying important elements of the text. Similarly, any given language is constituted by all the lexical elements that become part of it, but only some lexical elements are taken to characterize its cultural specificity.
Starting from the different interpretations of the expression "keywords" — as searching tools, in text mining and classification, but also as analytic tools in text interpretation and discourse analysis — this introduction focuses on the relationship between words and text, looking at the co-text of the word, but also at the cultural context that informs the text, where culture is taken to mean the repertoires of meanings shared within a community (e.g. national, or local, but also disciplinary). Keywords are often taken to be markers of the "aboutness" and the style of a text (Scott & Tribble 2006:59-60): what we want to investigate here is what structures of textuality keywords point to and how far they are also influenced by the position of the writer, in the context of text production.
Keywords and keyness in language studies
The notion of keyword has no well-defined meaning in language studies. The definition of a "word" as such may be seen as problematic in modern linguistics; de Saussure's search for the basis of a scientific study of language as system led him to units different from the word at various levels of analysis — phonetics and phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics.
Lexical analysis has long been concerned with the ways in which language, and lexis in particular, instantiates culture. Already in the nineteen-thirties, Firth's lexical semantics proposed the study of "sociologically important words, what one might call focal or pivotal words" and advocated an analysis of the distribution of words whose meanings characterize a community by occurring in specific contexts, with specific associations and values (1935: 40-41). On the basis of anthopological notions of context, and referring in particular to Malinowski, his colleague at the London School of Economics, Firth showed how the study of words in context can illuminate meanings that characterize a culture and a community, referring for example to the development of the meanings of clerk in Middle English from medieval clerics.
Similarly, Cultural Studies - Williams (1976) in particular - made an attempt to produce an analysis of contemporary culture through the study of a number of "cultural keywords", i.e. the 'dictionary' of a culture and a social group. The meanings of words like alienation, capitalism, family, fiction, hegemony, literature, media, tradition etc. were taken to represent the most distinctive features of contemporary western culture, by integrating synchronic and diachronic perspectives in a full appreciation of meaning. Williams thus made the link between keywords and discourse communities even more explicit, but he clearly oriented the analysis to historical and social macro-contextual factors only, not paying much attention to text and genre and leaving methodological tools for the analysis of meaning completely undiscussed.
A similar focus, but with a different perspective - oriented to the distinction between semantic universals and cultural underpinnings of a language - is provided by Anna Wierzbicka (1999, 2006). Wierzbicka looks at lexical semantics through her Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) as a key to the history, culture and society that produced it, considering the impact of values on interaction and its strategies. Her approach aims at counteracting both the tendency to mistake Anglo English for the human norm and widespread attempts to deny the existence and continued relevance of the cultural baggage of English in international communication. She looks for example at typical features of "anglo" culture such as the ideal of accuracy, the practice of understatement, recourse to "facts" and emphasis on rationality as against emotions. The importance of the meanings associated with a word like reasonable shows that "reasonableness" may prove to be the most effective persuasive strategy in an anglophone cultural context, which leaves little room to asymmetrical relations and denies persuasive power to both pleading and authority claims. Her study of the historically shaped cultural meanings of words like right, wrong, reasonable, fair aims at revealing covert meanings making the heritage of a common spirit perceivable. Her framework combines cognitive and interactional perspectives, attention to thinking, speaking and doing, with an interesting emphasis on the impact of values on interactive strategies, while still relying on an intuitive process of keyword and data selection.
Keywords are not necessarily a key to culture, however: they may facilitate understanding of the main point of a text, constituting chains of repetition in text. Whether referring to words that are key to the intepretation of a text or key to the interpretation of a culture, the study of keywords has become central in corpus linguistics, especially through the development of techniques for the analysis of the meaning of words in context. In a quantitative perspective, keywords are those whose frequency (or infrequency) in a text or corpus is statistically significant, when compared to the standards set by a reference corpus.
Identifying elements that are repeated to a statistically significant extent does not in itself constitute an analysis or an interpretation of the text or corpus. It does however point to elements that may be profitably studied and need to be explained. It certainly does point to fundamental elements in describing specialised discourse or in placing a text in a specific domain. The problem for the researcher, of course, lies both in the design of appropriate and adequately representative corpora and in the delicacy of the analysis, with its capacity to isolate specific questions and avoid overgeneralization.
In a corpus perspective, keywords are studied through their typical co-occurrence with other lexico-semantic units. Michael Stubbs (1996, 2001), for example, has shown the importance of concordance analysis in this field: the cultural and ideological implications of a lexical element can be illuminated by an analysis of its collocation and semantic preference - the tendency of the word to co-occur with other words and with words belonging to a specific semantic category or field (see also Sinclair 1996).
The notion of quantitative keyness applies equally to word forms, lemmas and word sequences'. The definition thus easily adapts to more complex units than the word, pointing towards a perspective that is gaining ground in present-day descriptive and theoretical language studies: phraseology. Keywords, in fact, are not necessarily single words: we can look at key-clusters (repeated strings of words)2 or even key-phrases, when extended units of meaning are considered, i.e. words in combination originating a unit of meaning that can be different from the sum of the constituent lexical units. In the words of John Sinclair (2005), a corpus perspective looks at words in combination and finds in phraseology the ideal starting point for the exploration of the systematic relation between text and form.
Emphasis on phraseology has been increasing in corpus research. The revived interest finds its origin in Sinclair's notion of collocation (e.g. Sinclair 1991) and in his "idiom principle", highlighting that in the linearity of text each choice narrows down the range of possible choices in the elements that follow and that "a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constute single choices" (1991:110).
Phraseological studies have shown a tendency to shift their attention from fixed, opaque multiword units to a much wider range of units. The focus of interest can thus be extended to discontinuous or inverse relations ("concgrams", Cheng, Greaves & Warren 2006) and patterns (Hunston & Francis 2000).
The key lexical elements of a text create a dense network of intercollocation, including both continuous and discontinuous phraseological patterns. Following Phillips (1989), for example, we can look at a collocation like that between electric and charge, but also at the patterns created in text between their collocates (e.g. for charge: distribution, density, point, uniform; for electric: dipole). The network of lexical relations of this kind would contribute to an identificaton of the "aboutness" of a text.
When lexical analysis combines with semantic analysis, looking at the extended unit of meaning with its corollary of semantic preference and semantic prosody (Sinclair 1996), attention to the co-text means identifying both the potential semantic associations between otherwise different forms and the association of the unit with further textual-pragmatic meanings. A recent development along these lines is the corpus study of semantic sequences, i.e. "recurring sequences of words and phrases that may be very diverse in form [...] more usefully characterised as sequences of meaning elements rather than as formal sequences (Hunston 2008:271).
The keyness metaphor in knowledge management: "Aboutness" as subject matter
The meaning of keywords is often explored through the metaphor on which the expression is based. A key is a tool that gives you access to something. The metaphor refers to the power of opening (and closing), revealing (or hiding) what is unknown or unclear. A keyword gives access to features of a text or corpus that are not immediately obvious: but what are these features? What textual doors are opened by keywords?
The first meaning of keyword is perhaps the most obvious in knowledge management, where keywords are those that help identify a text in structured databases, such as for example library resources. Textual data-bases can be searched making use of keywords to be automatically retrieved in pre-defined fields: title, author, abstract, subject descriptors, or the text itself. A range of tools is needed because titles are not always the best indicators of the subject matter of a text. This is quite obvious in literary writing: no-one thinks of Hamlet or Othello as indicators of subject matter or theme. It is less obvious but equally true of professional communication. A text entitled The Danger Model: A Renewed Sense of Self cannot be automatically attributed to a subject or a discipline. When we see it is a viewpoint article published in Science in 2002, we can probably exclude some of the expectations created by the title, but we need at least descriptors to understand that the field is immunology. The abstract reveals that the text discusses a change in paradigm in immunological studies, a shift from a vision of immunology as based on the distinction between self and non-self to a vision of the immunological system as worried about danger rather than foreignness. Titles can be seen as a key to texts, though not always the most direct key to their subject matter.
With the proliferation of scientific publications and the ever increasing use of textual data-bases, keyword searches have become central to knowledge management. Subject classification, however, is mostly realized from a perspective that is external to the text itself, making use of bibliographical classifications of knowledge such as the Dewey system. Author-produced keywords have also been used, though with unstable results. A priori categorizations are intersubjectively valid but they lack flexibility. Author-produced keywords are more flexible but they lack intersubjective comparability. Knowledge representation has become a key issue: from general and domain ontologies, to semantic networks and "frames". The attention often shifts from lexical units characterizing the surface of text to the possibility of recovering meaning structures beyond lexical forms.
The development of information science and of web-based knowledge, however, has shifted attention from information retrieval to information extraction. The availability of enormous quantities of unstructured data on the web poses the question of information "extraction": text mining requires tools that can move from lexical forms to meanings and their structures, thus finding keywords through the text rather than outside the text. In text mining, just like in current linguistic research, phraseological units are gaining importance. Tools for the identification of keywords are being developed on the basis of frequency data that do not simply look at individual word forms, but rather at relations between words that frequently co-occur.
This brings us back to keywords as words whose frequency (or infrequency) in a text or corpus is statistically significant. The vast majority of the keywords that can be determined by automatic analysis of a text will be key to its subject matter.
The keyness metaphor and text interpretation: Subject matter and organization
The notion of text has been one of the most influential in theoretical and methodological developments in linguistics. The past forty years have shown growing interest in meaning making processes beyond the basic syntactic unit of the clause or clause complex, starting for example with work on textuality and text cohesion (e.g. Halliday & Hasan 1976; Beaugrande & Dressler 1981; Conte, Petöfi & Sözer eds. 1989) and leading up to recent interest in patterns of lexis in text (Hoey 1991) as well as meaning units in the linearity of text (Sinclair 2004; Sinclair & Mauranen 2006). Lexical elements can be shown to play a key role in the cohesion of text (signalling and establishing relations between lexical units) and in textual coherence (the conceptual and functional unity of a text). In such a textual perspective, words can become key to the conceptual structure of the text - very much in the same way as in librarianship they define its subject matter - but also to the organizational structure of text - in ways that may also be illustrative of its communicative purpose.
Cognitive and pedagogic approaches to text have often shown that for the act of reading the words that organize text may be more important than those that identify its "content", because they guide the reader towards the elements of content. Signals of organizational structure will thus be key (or "pivotal") in reading because they facilitate access to the information required. If exploring a data-base requires use of keywords that constitute a map of existing knowledge, exploring a text requires use of organizational keywords that act as a textual map. Keywords signalling textual organization act as signposts and help readers identify generic patterns and locate information. When looked at from this perspective, keyness also links to a vast literature on meta-discourse and its role in reading. Let us take the basic metadiscursive structure of two abstracts like the following as an example:
(la) In this paper we investigate the implications of... In the received theory of ...In our model... Hence, we conclude that ...
(lb) Recent studies highlight increasing recognition of... It is understood now that This article overviews ... and outlines..., including ...
Irrespective of whether we are talking about nanotechnologies or market structures, the elements reported highlight the basic communicative structure of the text they represent: in the first case the text presents a new model contrasting it with more consolidated theories, while the second introduces a critical review of an issue on the background of recent developments in the field. If subject matter is essential in retrieval, communicative purpose and genre (research article vs review article) may be equally important in reading and metadiscursive elements act as signposts to actual content.
Key-words, key-clusters and key-phrases are not always elements of the conceptual structure of a text. There may be elements of grammatical structure or elements of self-reference. These become useful pointers to the most frequent textual structures of a text as well as its most frequent metadiscursive phaseology.
We may thus think of two kinds of keywords, much in the same way as Sinclair and Mauranen's "Linear Unit Grammar" distinguishes two kinds of unit in the linearity of text - "message-oriented elements", contributing to the topical continuation of discourse, and "organization-oriented elements", that contribute to managing discourse. On the one hand, there are keywords that point at the conceptual structure of a text, its "aboutness", what the text is about. On the other, there are keywords that point at issues that may prove to be useful indicators of the communicative purpose and micro- or macro-structure of the text, what the text does and how.
The first section of the book explores the notion of keyness from different points of dew. Michael Stubbs outlines the field from the point of view of language studies, discussing three loosely related uses of the term "keyword", as cultural keywords, s statistically meaningful repetition and as phraseological patterns involving ex-ended units of meaning. His main theoretical focus lies on the critical link beween words, texts and culture, while he argues for the need to relate words and texts to the social institutions which are characterized by texts and text-types.
The more specific problems and challenges of quantitative approaches, largely dominant in corpus linguistics, are presented by Mike Scott. The chapter maps rut the problems of defining keyness, discussing statistical issues and the choice of a reference corpus, as well as illustrating issues of corpus stylistics.
One of the problems highlighted by Scott - the role of closed-class keywords - is picked up by Nick Groom and explored fully in a discourse perspective. The chapter presents the case for a specific focus on closed-class keywords s objects of corpus-driven discourse analysis. Their potential lies in the coverage hey offer of phraseological data and in their capacity to reflect the constellations of meanings and values of a discourse community.
Jukka Tyrkkö draws a distinction between key words and keywords. Through he examples of hyperlinks in hypertexts, he claims that words may possess a degree of keyness due to their inherent markedness and their functional properties, rather than to statistical significance. Hyperlinks are paradoxically shown rot to be reliable indicators of topic, but still indicative of discursively important opics in the process of text production and reception.
The section closes with a chapter by Francois Rastier, who offers interesting reflexions on the background against which current research on keywords could be set by looking at the Web. He contrasts traditional programmes of knowledge representation with a corpus-linguistics web semantics - situating knowledge with texts rather than outside them - and advocates a re-thinking of the relationship between data and metadata.
Section II looks at keyness in specialised discourse. Martin Warren's text opens the section and links it to the first, by offering a new perspective on "aboutness". He looks at concgramming, identifying the most frequently co-occurring pairs of words, irrespective of constituency and/or positional variation. Analysis of the lexical concgrams looks at meaningful association to draw up a list of aboutgrams identifying the aboutness of a text. An examination of the text's phraseology and phraseological variation is shown to have great potential in defining the aboutness of a text.
The methodology is further discussed in Denise Milizia's analysis of the speeches of Tony Blair and George W Bush. The focus of the study is first on the word climate and on the co-occurrence of climate and change. The analysis shows the importance of looking at phraseological units rather than individual words in looking for the aboutness of text.
Andrea Gerbig offers an interesting example of how different approaches can be combined in her study of a a corpus of travel writing, from Early modern English literature to contemporary `blooks. Starting from statistically determined keywords, she studies key-keywords and associates, before moving on to contextual analysis of some words as extended lexical units and concluding with an analysis of keyphrases and phrase frames, thus including both repeated strings of words and repeated patterns.
Looking at phraseological combinations around selected keywords, Donatella Malavasi and Davide Mazzi study how different disciplines represent their own research activity, focusing in particular on subjects and objects of the activity, as well as on research procedures. By highlighting differences in the general lexis of self-representation in history and marketing, the study confirms the centrality of keywords in characterizing disciplines, as well as a considerable degree of intercollocability between selected keywords.
Gill Philip looks at the problem of metaphorical keyness in a corpus of speeches by Italian female politicians. Starting from an identification of statistically generated keywords as mostly associated to a text's content, Philip looks for tools for the analysis of the relationship between keywords and the message of the text (covert keyness) focusing on evaluative language and metaphors. She sets out a method for semi-automatic identification of metaphors and demonstrates systematic interaction with keywords.
The third and final section looks at critical and educational perspectives. Erica Bassi studies how the Kyoto Protocol has been represented in two national newspapers: the Italian La Repubblica and the American The New York Times. Keywords are grouped into semantic fields to study the meanings associated to the protocol and closer analysis of words denoting 'disaster' and 'alarm' is carried out, emphasising the different strategies used by the two newspapers.
The study by Soon Hee Fraysse-Kim identifies keywords that trigger national consciousness of Koreans through an analysis of school textbooks used in elementary schools in four Korean communities: in South Korea, North Korea, Japan and China. The sense of homogeneity suggested across the politico-social borders is taken to reflect prevailing ideology, internalized and reproduced by school education.
Along similar lines, but moving towards pedagogical implications for literacy, Paola Leone uses keyness to identify the basic lexical patterns of school textbooks and matches them to the language young learners might be exposed to out of school. Results show discoursal, lexical, semantic, and morphological features which may be unfamiliar to the learner and should therefore deserve special attention in syllabus design.
The investigations presented in this book - originally presented at a conference held in Pontignano, Italy, under the title of the present volume - are quite narrowly focused on keyness in a corpus perspective, mostly involving attention to text and discourse. They are, however, illustrative of different topics, approaches, methods and theoretical assumptions. We are grateful to the contributors for this. Most of the contributions, on the other hand, have largely benefited from John Sinclair's ideas.
Cross-cultural Communication: Perspectives in Theory and Practice by Thomas L. Warren (Baywood) is a collection of essays that examines how practitioners can improve the acceptance of their documentation when communicating to cultures other than their own. The essays begin by examining the cross-cultural issues relating to quality in documentation. From there, the essays look at examples of common documents, analyzing them from several perspectives. Specifically, the author uses communication theories (such as Bernstein's Elaborated and Restricted Code theory and Marwell and Schmidt's Compliance-Gaining theory) to show how documents used by readers who are not native speakers of English can be written and organized to increase their effectiveness. The principal assumption about how practitioners create their documents is that, while large organizations can afford to write, translate, and then localize, small- to medium-size organizations produce many documents that are used directly by people in other cultures-often without translating and localizing.
The advantage the writer gains from these essays is in understanding the strategies and knowing the kinds of strategies to apply in specific situations. In addition, the essays can serve as a valuable resource for students and teachers alike as they determine ways to understand how cross-cultural communication is different and why it makes a difference. Not only do students need to be aware of the various strategies they may apply when creating documents for cross-cultural settings, they also need to see how research can apply theories from different areas-in the case of these essays, communication and rhetorical theories. Another value of the essays (particularly the Chapter 4 essay on international communication in the international standards community) is to show the students the role standards play in cross-cultural communication; standards are written by committees that follow style rules developed by the International Standardization Organization (ISO) in Geneva. Thus, both students and practitioners can find valuable cross-cultural communication advice in these essays.
Encyclopedia of Communities of Practice in Information And Knowledge Management edited by Steve Clarke, Elayne Coakes (Idea Group Publishing) is the leading reference source for dynamic and innovative research in the field of communities of practice (CoPs) in information and knowledge management. With knowledge management work on the increase, this single volume encyclopedia provides a comprehensive, critical, and descriptive examination of all facets of CoPs, and includes 550 terms and definitions as well as 1,950 references to additional research. More than 120 researchers from over 20 countries provide in-depth coverage of conceptual and practical issues as well as topics regarding learning, leadership, ethics, social, intellectual, rewards, and language challenges. More
Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium by Albert Borgmann (University of Chicago Press) We hear constantly about our current "information revolution." Twenty-four-hour news channels and dizzying Internet technologies bombard us with facts and pictures from around the globe. But what kind of a "revolution" is this? How has information really changed from what it was ten years or ten centuries ago? Albert Borgmann offers some riveting answers to these questions in Holding on to Reality.
Borgmann has written a brilliant history of information, from its inception in the natural world to its role in the transformation of culture--in writing and printing, in music and architecture--to the current Internet mania and its attendant assets and liabilities. Drawing on the history of ideas, the details of information technology, and the boundaries of the human condition, Borgmann explains the relationship between things and signs, between reality and information. His history ranges from Plato to Boeing and from the alphabet to virtual reality, all the while being conscious of the enthusiasm, apprehension, and uncertainty that have greeted every stage of the development of information.
Holding on to Reality is underscored by the humanist's fundamental belief in human excellence and by the conviction that excellence is jeopardized unless we achieve a balance of information and "the things and practices that have served us well and we continue to depend on for our material and spiritual well-being--the grandeur of nature, the splendor of cities, competence of work, fidelity to loved ones, and devotion to art or religion." Holding on to Reality is an eloquent call for caution and historical understanding, and everyone concerned with the future of information technologies will find their thinking enlivened and enriched by Borgmann's lucid and impassioned exploration
Albert Borgmann is Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana. His books include Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life and Crossing the Postmodern Divide, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
Information technology has deeply influenced the ways we cope today with the threat of the devastation and loss of meaning. The challenge to the festive resolution of the ambiguity that rises from the surrounding injustice and misery we are inclined to meet with a version of virtual ambiguity, a loosening of the ties that should connect our celebrations with their real and entire context. While virtuality is our reply to the devastation of common meanings, hyperinformation is our response to the oblivion of individuals. Common hyperinformation is the huge amount of colorful information we accumulate through pictures and videos especially. But all the other records we keep and that are kept about us are part of hyperinformation. Utopian hyperinformation is the brainchild of scientists who, in the tradition of artificial intelligence, believe that the core of an individual is the information contained in the brain, and purport that software can and will be extracted from the wetware of neurons and transferred without loss to the hardware of a computer or some other medium forever and again in this way and that so that the core of individuals, their personal identity, will achieve immortality."
All of these are desperate attempts. To the extent that we shield celebration through virtual ambiguity from the reproaches of a suffering world, we empty celebration of meaning. At the limit, when celebration is fully protected, it is no longer worth saving. The endeavor to be remembered through common hyperinformation is indistinguishable from a headlong rush into oblivion. Some of the information will be overtaken by its physical and social fragility. If we find a way to stabilize it, however, its sheer disorganized and imposing mass will excuse our offspring from taking it to heart.
The reach for utopian hyperinformation is perhaps the most telling and melancholy indication that no one wants to "pass into oblivion;' as a medieval chronicler has it, "as hail and snow melt in the waters of a swift river swept away by the current never to return."" In ordinary people, atheists or not, this fear takes the form of the desire to be remembered and to be remembered well. Alexander wanted more than to be recorded by historians, he wanted to be transfigured by the poet. Ben Sira asks us not just to recall but to praise our ancestors. People seem to conceive of themselves as deeply ambiguous signs that call for resolution.
What is true of the microcosm of the person is true of the macrocosm of the universe. It too is a sign as much as a thing, something that refers to its beginning and end. In our culture the normative response to the unresolved references of the cosmos is astrophysics. Though it is not inevitably committed to a beginning and an end of all things, it does concern itself with the lawful structure of the world's past and future and aims at a final theory of all there is."
As regards the middle region of the cosmos that is so artfully balanced between the structure of atoms and galaxies, the terrestrial realm of nature and culture, its welfare requires more calmness and lucidity of recollection." As it is, contemporary culture may lapse into a condition where a surfeit of information is as injurious as the lack of information. Where in the latter case one is confined by the darkness of ignorance and forgetfulness, today we are blinded by the glare of excessive and confused information. To regain our sight or the coherence of the public world we must be able to count on chroniclers-the journalists, essayists, and historians-and we must allow their work to come to rest and attention for a day at least, )r a month, or some years. Newspapers, journals, and books have seen the places of considered judgment, and these or some such focal points are needed if information technology, beyond its instrumental unctions in science and industry, is to become a constructive strand n the texture of our lives.
To recover a sense of continuity and depth in our personal world, we have to become again readers of texts and tellers of stories. Looks have a permanence that inspires conversation and recollection. When you read or recount a passage from a book to your loved and the matter at issue envelops both of you and fills the place you occupy. Stories are the spaces wherein pictures and mementos come life and coalesce into a coherent picture of the past and a hopeful fusion of the future. Records in turn keep stories straight and lend them detail. Thus the culture of the word can card, spin, and knit the Lass of technological information into a tapestry that is commensuate with reality.
As for cosmic closure, I quite agree with Steven Weinberg that a final theory will be a noble and intellectually satisfying accomplishment, the crowning achievement in our search for structure and lawfulness." But the world has a history as well as structure. History in the large and strict sense is the meaningful sequence of unpredictable events. It is contingency. Hence we face the question whether there can be cosmic closure of a historical as well as a structural sort. It may well turn out that at the beginning of the cosmos history and structure are indistinguishable, that the unfolding of the cosmos is simultaneously an unfolding of lawfulness. But in time structure and contingency must diverge in one way or another. There is no prospect of deducing the lightning that causes a devastating fire or the encounter that leads to a happy marriage from the laws of the universe alone.
History, then, requires its own kind of reading, one that must consist with the laws of nature but also attend to the givenness of things and events. The decline of meaning and the rise of information have kept contemporary readings of history weak and inconclusive. The recent burst of information technology has further, and fortunately, silenced the voices of overt misery, of disease, poverty, and violence, both here and around the globe. There is still unspeakable suffering in many parts of the world. But information technology is both the channel and the energy that is carrying the free market economy and its blessings to every corner on earth.
As overt misery is waning, so is the inference that used to be drawn from it, namely, that suffering would not be what it is if it did not intimate salvation in the end. And similarly, as our celebrations are losing their context and contrast of poverty and violence, they also lose their reference, weak already, to the need for final salvation. But while information technology is alleviating overt misery, it is aggravating a hidden sort of suffering that follows from the slow obliteration of human substance. It is the misery of persons who lose their well-being not to violence or oblivion, but to the dilation and attenuation they suffer when the moral gravity and material density of things is overlaid by the lightness of information. People are losing their character and definition in the levity of cyberspace.
The engagement of reality is the proximate remedy for this condition, and yet many of us find it hard to face up and to be faithful to persons and things. Though we feel blessed by celebrations once we have been drawn into them, all too often we lack the strength or loyalty to enter them regularly. The moral paralysis people inflict on themselves through the abuse of technological information is miserable any way you look at it. The constructive responses are manifold, however, and not a matter of contestation but attestation. Christians, for example, owe what fidelity to persons and festive things they possess to a strong reading of cosmic contingency-the history of salvation. Whatever definition they attain as persons through their engagement with reality they see as precarious and in need of final resolution. The world as a sign makes them look forward to the event when
Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.
A written book will be brought forward
Wherein everything is gathered
Whence the world may be adjudged.
All of us will be remembered and more; our souls will be rocked in the bosom of Abraham.
insert content here