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Monday, November 14, 2005

Notes on two or three ways of reading the ordinary

Posted by Timothy Gould, Guest Author, on 11/14/05 at 06:59 PM

This is a post by guest author Timothy Gould, one of the contributors to The Literary Wittgestein. So this is a late contribution to our book event. Tim wants me to tell you he regards this as a paper draft and so would like to attach the standard "do not cite without permission" caveat, should the thing - as Plato frets - roll around and end up somewhere surprising, nay scholarly, etc.

Let me say a few more words, because I find Gould's piece interesting but fear it is not written up in a way that invites the non-specialist to share the view. First, Gould is responding to Stone and Eldridge, responding to Wittgenstein (see links below); so if you haven't been following the thread, you may have trouble picking it up. Second, I think Gould buries the lede, as the journos say. (Is it possible to discuss Cavell and not?) Let me have a go. Wittgenstein says 'the philosopher subsists on a one-sided diet of examples'. That means, at a minimum: you have a few cases where your account seems to work, and your interest in these cases charms you into overlooking what should be quite obvious counter-examples. Gould is diagnosing dueling one-sided diet plans, you might say. Stone looks at Fish and sees him missing obvious counter-examples. Gould then looks at Stone, looking at Fish, and sees him - not as saying anything that is clearly wrong, but as saying too little about the very cases that loom too large in Fish's account. A balance needs striking.

So that's the lede, and it is of broader interest than it might seem because, to a no doubt limited degree, Fish and Stone typify different cultures of thinking about 'interpretation'. It's too crude to say Fish thinks like an English professor, Stone like an Anglo-American philosophy prof. Yet that may be a helpful ladder, so long as you dispose of it promptly. It's meant to draw attention to the question of: what sorts of cases interest people? Bafflement at the wrong-headedness of others - about interpretation, about many matters - is often connected to divergent taste in problems. I'm going well beyond Gould in letting Fish and Stone stand approximate proxy for their respective departments. If anyone wishes to make me regret that overextension, it wouldn't be hard. - the Management

I am happy to be in the company this site provides, as well as that of the book which prompted the symposium. I want to orient a couple of comments about Wittgenstein’s relation to questions of interpretation, literary, legal and otherwise, in relation to the essays of Martin Stone, “On the Old Saw: ‘Every Reading of a Text is an Interpretation” [download it here] and Richard Eldridge on “”Rotating the Axis of Our Investigation” [excerpted here], both collected in The Literary Wittgenstein. These comments of mine do not amount to anything like even a sketch for a detailed comparison of these essays, nor are they yet a sketch for an essay that could stand on its own. Rather I have tried to use their work to gather some thoughts on the flight of literary theory from the ordinary, the evasion of theory of its own commitments. Or rather it is the beginning of a thought about the possibility of turning that evasion back on itself in ways that might reveal something of the motives and the structure of our relation to such theories and such interpretations. Cavell calls that the responsiveness of philosophy to itself and its conditions (some of which are literary).

A more preliminary note on the subject of philosophy and literary theory (a subject Stone refers to more than once). Derrida, I believe, began by giving the name “writing” to, among other things, this uncontrollable demand for a response, emanating from the text and emanating from something philosophy still sometimes names “us”. “Writing” becomes something philosophy could not avoid invoking - even as it called upon the voice - but writing was something that philosophy could not control or master. The issue of control is an issue about the writing of philosophy, and whether it can be brought to end, for instance, a space open enough to publish in, to open philosophy to the space of reading - and not for instance the unwritten space of Socrates. (Cf. the first chapters of Writing and Difference.) The idea that writing or textuality is uncontrollable does not mean we cannot learn to live with it, any more than Cavell’s idea of philosophy’s responsiveness to itself means that we cannot pause, as if for breath or perhaps to write it out, in our responses.

Neither question completely coincides with the issue of - how else can I put it? - “regulating” the correctness of interpretation. Thinking that these questions coincide without any left-over restlessness for philosophy to contend with is perhaps the beginning of a certain kind of theory - but certainly not all of it, and not the best of it. It would be to imagine that theory can get “outside” the very conditions of interpretation and speech that they insist we cannot get “outside” of. The suspiciousness and necessity of this getting outside, or being “driven” outside, is something you will find as early as Kant’s distinctions of a critical metaphysics from a dogmatic metaphysics. And when Derrida says there is nothing “outside” - dehors - he is not saying either that the world is completely open to interpretation at all times, and in all places, or that he has found a place from which it would make sense to assert such a thing, a place presumably outside, dehors - a text that escaped the conditions of textuality, which he would most likely have to name something like the unconditioned. He is better taken as saying that only a further text, a further production of writing, can test the limits of a particular region of textuality, its particular anxiety of production and activity, versus reception and passivity.

Stone’s critique mostly centers on (and works over) certain pages of Stanley Fish. He applies and develops some of the most crucial moments of Wittgenstein’s Investigations and Stanley Cavell’s readings of Investigations, particularly some passages on notions of following rules and the incoherence of the idea that every application of every rule requires an interpretation. As we shall see my slight reservations about this powerful essay (which I have read or heard in a couple of versions) have less to do with whether the target (Fish) was blown out of the water than about the nature of the conceptual explosives that were employed in this demolition. I sense that there is, or might be, some collateral damage to our notion of the everyday, the notion that Stone is at pains to invoke and preserve. If there is, it is not I think irreparable damage, and thinking about it may help us understand the reciprocal notions of act (and intention) and following a rule and interpretation.

A reader of Wittgenstein will want to bring the word “interpretation” back from its philosophical to its everyday use. Given the nearly intractable history of the word - its institutionalization in theology and law, ins appropriation in rhetoric, its vestment by philosophy (in, say, the line) from Dilthey to Gadamer, and its use in such varied contexts as psychoanalysis, history, art, and personal relationships - this is bound to be difficult. (LW,199)

While denying that bring “interpretation” back to its everyday use needs to mean restricting the term “to the substitution of one expression for another” (PI, 201, cited by Stone on LW, 199), Stone goes on to make clear a version of the philosophical versus the ordinary use of the word that we ought to be able to recognize and live with.

(1) In the philosophical use, interpretation is ubiquitous, so the need for interpretation no longer contrasts with cases of plain meaning, but with a suspect conception of plain meaning as “inherently plain” or “plain in itself”. And when called upon to explain these expressions, the philosopher is apt to say that, on this suspect conception, plain meanings are not only unchallenged or undoubted, but somehow immune to the possibility of doubt or challenge. But (2) interpretation in the everyday sense was directed at actual doubt, not the mere notional possibility of doubt.

There is an attractive and significant point being made here: The contrast between the ubiquity of the need for, and the possibility, of interpretation as against the very specific occasions where interpretation is called for in ordinary life works to undermine the obviousness of the philosopher’s claim to having discovered a kind of fact about meaning and interpretation: the “fact” that all meanings and rules and commands require something like an interpretation in order to be understood and followed. But the lack of specific contexts where an interpretation is actually called for undermines the obviousness of the claim that what is ordinarily obvious is, so to speak, never as obvious as it seems.

What troubles Stone should trouble us. But Stone’s prior warning about the involvement of the word “interpretation” in everything from the Bible, to psychoanalysis, to Gadamer on 'horizons of understanding' should also be taken to heart. For unlike the case of skepticism about the other (as in Wittgenstein, §243ff and Cavell, The Claim of Reason) and especially the other’s sensations, these philosophers of interpretation, these architects of the hermeneutics of suspicion, are not invariably claiming that they have discovered that the obvious is open to doubt. They are discovering that what gives itself out as natural is in fact ideological or social, for instance, or determined by historical geists or ghosts of varying degrees of penetrable.

To think for all world that the other might not be in pain because, after all, the other’s neurons are wired differently, and what is pain for him is pleasure for me, is one kind of extreme, and Wittgenstein wants to know how we brought ourselves, or were driven to this pass. (For instance, to the impasse of saying, “I know what I mean by pain it means THIS, what I have now.”) But Gadamer, for instance, is not committed to claiming that “pain” has changed its meaning from the horizon of the Enlightenment to the horizon of the modern. And if “cadence” or “tonality” have changed their meaning, that is not something that a return to the everyday will cure. There is no everyday use of the terms of music theory, none that is independent of the history of music and its practice. That is not uncongenial to Stone’s over-arching argument. But its details need to be worked out a little more.

And if Nietzsche thinks that pain and punishment have changed their meaning, or have had meanings superimposed on one another, that is not because “pain” is private, but because pain helps create the notion of a private space of the self. Furthermore, “pain” and “punishment” are concepts we need to understand that development of privacy before we can understand the fixated contrast of public and private. We do not want to deprive ourselves of these tools of interpretation by returning interpretation to its everyday use too quickly. We do not give in to skepticism by recognizing that skepticism, like the self and its worlds, is formed within specific horizons of meaning and interpretation. And that sort of interpretation is specifically not a candidate for being ubiquitous, for a very good reason: our capacity for interpreting history and monitoring its changes may well be itself susceptible to change and interpretation. But for reasons (it must be said again) that have nothing to do with Heisenberg and everything to do with Rousseau’s second Discourse, the way we measure and interpret changes in the human being cannot be simultaneously measured and interpreted in the same ways, with the same tools, in the same respect, and at the same time.

Here what is undermined is not the everyday use of interpretation, but the specific sense of “simultaneity.” This, in turn, is the beginning of the problem of what is called the “social construction” of this or that. We lack the ability to turn the analysis of such construction on the construction of the “observer” and the interpreter. This problem does not ordinarily afflict the one who is charged with interpreting the cookbook, though it might very well affect the obviousness of the interpretation, indeed, the fact that it is an interpretation, concerning who is actually supposed to do the cooking tonight. Just as settling the question 'are these inoculations to be administered every two years, or twice a year?' does not settle the question whether the mother or the father is the “natural” person to make the appointment with the pediatrician.

These remarks do not touch the use of Stone’s analysis to undercut the Fishian claim of the “ubiquity” of unstable meaning and the need of interpretation. But it is important to remember, and Stone himself reminds us, that there is more than one way to find the everyday suspicious, and that skepticism is only one such away, however important it becomes in accounts like Cavell’s and Stone’s and however out of control it may be in accounts like Fish’s. One might even say that the importance of skepticism’s departure from the every day is derived precisely because - from Plato to Gadamer and Freud - it is the scene of delusion. But by the same token, the possibility of diagnosis (perhaps a better word than interpreting for the moment) our problems and delusions in the everyday, requires quite specific problems and symptoms and ideological mystifications and hence cannot deploy a general letter of intent to demystify in order to perform its specific act of demystification.

***************

Eldridge’s essay also drinks from the well-springs of Cavell’s work on Wittgenstein. But here it is the return to Romanticism and, in particular, to Hölderlin that captures his attention. There is a deft and subtle effort to relate the notion of change or alternation (Wechsel) in Holderlin to the rhythm of Wittgenstein’s prose. Stone and Eldridge have isolated two of the most important sides of Cavell’s work, and they leave open the connection to one another’s emphasis as sites for further work. They have declined the temptation to offense the rough spots in Cavell wish to give, and equally declined the temptation to roughen up the elegance that Cavell is sometimes mocked for, and sometimes adulated for, and rarely imitated with any success.

If Stone works in the broad noon of Wittgensteinian illumination, reminding us that Fish has brought a flashlight to a noon time picnic, Eldridge is working on the edges of Wittgenstein’s darker, more Romantic trails. If we follow Cavell in thinking of the madness that the philosophical mood is sometimes enamored of, sometimes driven towards, then we might think Stone as allowing us to appreciate the farce in this madness, a farce that might still allow for the deeper sociability than that confected out of Fish’s so-called interpretive communities. Eldridge, for all the joy he finds in the steps of the journey, is shadowed by a darker vision - the isolation, bordering on madness, of the one who seeks to shelter the mad one, seeking to lead him and his words back home.

One starting point for thinking about Wittgenstein on interpretation is surely the early passage (cited by Stone):

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here. (PI, §201) 

This is the crux of the divergence between Cavell and Kripke, who seems to take this paradox to be a stable point of departure - that is, a striking sense of a permanent loss, a source both of uneasiness and of a programmatic future for the philosophy of mind and language. In other words (and this is the main point of agreement between Kripke and Cavell) Wittgenstein has discovered or excavated a new form of skepticism, a form of skepticism about meaning that we must now - after the discovery - accept, or learn to live with. This is likewise a place where Stone goes after Fish, who seems to think he can have all this, but without skepticism. That skepticism is for Fish the name of a kind of fantasy that thinks it is still able to question the answers of interpretive communities, hence the sort of thing that keeps alive the image of a truth that would answer skepticism, in the sense of putting its doubts to rest. That idea is not alien to me or, I imagine, to Stone, since it is a way of putting one of the finding insights about skepticism in the work of Stanley Cavell. But that is, Cavell teaches us, in part still a version of skepticism’s version of itself. Not perhaps its favorite version, but still the sense of scrupulousness unmet, unappeasable, and very, very peregrine.

A long time ago, already working myself up to the point where I could use Cavell’s work in my own, rather than spending my days defending his right to philosophical existence, it occurred to me to put a significant part of the problem like this: it comes as a great discovery to some minds that every response to a text is an interpretation. I wonder why it does not occur to most of those minds that every interpretation of a text is a response to that text. Of course, just as one might say that “there is no objective way to ground our interpretation of a text” one might also say, with even more fervor, that any response to a text-including boredom - is still a response, and there is no way of judging the validity of a response. But this seems to me to be a kind of evasion.

Or rather there are two evasions in this game of interpretation and responsiveness. Stone’s essay charts one of them in great detail.

The question Martin Stone is responding to is the question whether something about the text is adequately captured, elucidated, preserved, reproduced or performed in another text or performance. So we begin in Wittgenstein with the question, for instance, what is the right interpretation of the command “add 2”. And I think that Stone is right: when we bring the word “interpretation” back from its metaphysical to its ordinary use we find that the paradox depends on the abrogation of conditions without which the paradox would not exist. (More on this later.)

But I want to push at the other side of the idea, the idea that makes an interpretation a form of response. (This is perhaps most vivid in the sense of interpretation in which a pianist gives his interpretation of Chopin. But what is vivid, as Stone makes clear, does not always display either the finest or the crudest structure of the problem, such as it is). If we think in terms of interpretation as a response, we move in two other directions: first, we move from the question why isn’t “1000, 1004, 1008…” a legitimate interpretation of the command “add 2”? Certainly it is a response, however perverse, to that command. And doesn’t that show that the idea of an interpretation just widens, or loosens the problem?

The other thing that the idea of response does is to shift us from the region of the investigation where he is thinking of following a rule - very natural when you are thinking about the law, less so about literature - to the region where we ask what make this drawing of him a representation of him? Not the fact that it looks like him. My response to you is a response to you not because like Groucho and Chico I manage to imitate exactly the movements you make, as you make them, thus reconstituting the idea of my interpretation as fully captured in the idea of my reproducing, or mirroring your command, or more broadly your utterance.

This is extremely difficult region of Wittgenstein and has been interpreted as heavily a matter of convention, which just reinscribes the issues of how these conventions are to be interpreted. But it must also be said that as I walk across the space, instantly mimicking your steps and gestures, I am, among other things, responding to your steps and gestures. No doubt this is a limiting case, as my using a signature machine to copy my signature is certainly limiting case of my interpreting my own signature. (I cannot, however distant, forge my own signature. So I cannot respond to myself, unless some further concept response or responsiveness is invoked - as it is in Cavell’s interpretation of philosophy as a kind of endless responsiveness, and responsibility for, my own utterance. If I copy your face by using a plastic mold, I have not thereby interpreted your face. But I have also not thereby copied your face in response to your face (except in the most restricted sense of response - as perhaps the Wal-Mart photographer takes the fiftieth photograph in boredom, resentment, or fear for her job), and I have not copied your face without interpretation, any more than I have copied your face according to an interpretation. I have used a means of copying - a mask, a photograph - according to which my interpretation and my response have become separated. My heightened response, for instance, to wanting to photograph or taking a desk math, are not the signs of interpretation but of something else, something more morbid or, on some occasions and in some cultures, perhaps more hopeful.

A response may be excessive, tactful, evasive, loving, shy, rude, and inappropriate or appropriate in various (but not unlimited) ways. The putative response can, of course, fail altogether to respond to the person, or gesture, or object or text. It can try to respond, and miss its “target” entirely, or it can deny its object, or deny that the object is worthy of response.

What response is appropriate to being overwhelmed, or to granting the text the freedom and integrity and self-containment it has hoped for? Here the issue is not one of a reading, or response, that contains no interpretation (no interpellation? No reading in?), but of whether we have the stamina to see an interpretation through to the end, the stamina for completeness and the moral strength to stop when it is time to stop.

A demand for a philosophy of the human subject - that is where Eldridge wants the meeting place of Wittgenstein and Holderlin to be. But how do we know that that is what both writers want, or where there well met? Wittgenstein arrives at a self, the way he “arrives” at the fact that the chief has to have a consciousness. We do not “infer” the existence of a chief, from the existence of a tribe, anymore than we infer the existence of consciousness in the chief. And we do not “infer” that there pain present in a self, because there can’t be pain without a self to possess it.

For all the talk in Cavell about restoring the issue of the self, and the human voice to philosophy, it remains extremely hard to locate in “human” terms in Wittgenstein’s actual words. “The human body is the picture of the human self.” An excellent thought. But is it my particular human body is the picture of my particular soul? That makes much less comfortable. The limits of Fish’s idea of intention are the limits of utterance, in all its varieties. It is as if Fish wants to force us to think of a generalized “intention” that makes meaningful each utterance, each act of speech or bodily movement. And if there were such a generalized intention would it do the work it was meant to do? How can intention in general provide the specific meaning or state of action that we require of our words and motions?

Eldridge on the other hand wants to answer that the issue of the self must run up against “the impossibility of a theoretical explanation of subjectivity” (LW, 225) Eldridge takes this beyond the Kantian precincts of this thought - equivalent initially perhaps to the idea that there can be no “example” of freedom, if example implies a theoretically explicable experience of freedom.

How, within subject activity can the independence, autonomy and dignity of self-conscious selfhood be expressed, together with the maintenance of genuine receptivity toward the world and the acceptance of others in a stance of love and openness (218)

Without independence, selfhood is compromised. Without love and openness independent is empty, nihilistic, and vengefully world-denying. But how can independent selfhood and loving openness be blended. These are the questions that are foundational for Hölderlin’s reception of Kant and Fichte and for his consequent conception of the human subject. (218)

Presumably these questions are designed to fit the problem posed at the beginning of Hölderlin’s novel, Hyperion. “Not to be coerced by the greatest, yet to be contained by the smallest, is the nature of the divine.” Among other things, it is Hölderlin’s way of generalizing the birth of a child, which is also the birth of a new heaven and a new earth.

But for the human being, this raises the question of whether reconciliation and the foregoing of revenge are possible, even under the sign of love and within its human scope. Christianly speaking, it is possible only under the grace provided by a divine sacrifice emanating love, and granting us the power of love. From a Greek or Nietzschean point of view one might ask: Must the human become divine to solve the problem of being the human? That does not sound like Wittgenstein. What then does Eldridge have in mind?

In a less heightened sense then the one posed by Hyperion, Eldridge’s efforts can be seen to run parallel to that of Cavell’s efforts to portray the Investigations as a work of perfectionism, in the specific sense of Emersonian growth.

Cavell pins his hopes on a sense of the discontinuous ability to, for instance, go on - go on to take new steps, go on in ways that cannot be predicted by rules, but can be, nevertheless followed. I take Eldridge to pin his hopes and reconciliation and the possibility of love and music (Here I must confess to knowing something of his work on music theory, which is alluded to in this essay. The connections seem worth following out.)

Does love make possible reconciliation, and the end of revenge? Or do the same hopes for love, the attunements of the human, make possible also the sense of revenge, ressentiment - hence revenge as a human goal? Eldridge’s project must, I think, include the effort to show, in part, that the music of our lives, the still, sad music of humanity, inclines us to the overcoming of revenge. But inevitably the same project must also show the possibility of the failure to overcome revenge, perhaps even the exacerbating of our need of it.

The passivity that many think they find in Wittgenstein is preceded by something similar in Hölderlin: “Oh that I had never acted. I would be so much richer in hope.” You might think of Eldridge’s project as one of trying to show that Wittgenstein’s antipathy to the idea of progress, as understood by the enlightenment, his hope for a different concept of hope than the idea of progress allows for -  is indeed a kind of hope against hope. There must be a hope that permits the love of reconciliation, which in turn permits the possibility of reconciliation. But it cannot, must not, attempt to prove that this hope will be realized. What sense would such an effort make? It must be something that leaves open the possibility of hopelessness, as an attunement of human beings equal in force and depth to hope. Only then, will hope become the equal of its most intimate antagonist. Hence also the rightness of music as the emblem of poetry and reconciliation. Hence the irrelevance of the quibbles and false skepticism about interpretation. Only then can hope take its place in the economy of selfhood.

The other possibility, at once canny and wonderful, is the idea contained in the poetry of music and the music of poetry - “the ardor of tones”. To hear them is to receive them, and to receive them is already to have interpreted them in your passion, your own new, or renewed, capacity for feeling - in particular your capacity for love. Or else the interpretation of music is on the side of the composer (as well as the performer), “interpreting the world” in order to change it. As Wordsworth has already seen, and written down “the types and characters of the great apocalypse”, for which mere interpretation is more likely to be a ploy to sell books than an actual event of the spirit.


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