Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Subliming Interpretation: Stone Frames some Issues in his Paper (and Replies To Holbo)
Martin Stone is a guest author and contributor to the Literary Wittgenstein. He has kindly consented to make his paper from the volume available for download here. - the Management
I’m happy that it is John who has introduced my paper and not me. I’ll just add one general introductory remark. The paper does rather dwell a lot on Fish. But it was also the first place I articulated an idea which John doesn’t mention (yet) but which I have begun to deepen in forthcoming work of mine. Very briefly this: People sublime the term "interpretation." They forget very simple and obvious things, for example, that an interpretation is a kind of explanation. And that explaining is an activity - an intentional activity. (I know this will sound odd to people who have Derridean and Nietzschean "active interpretation" (interpretation as a condition of the intelligibility of everything) in their heads; but it must not be forgotten that when Nietzsche, for example, uses the word like this, he is relying on our familiarity with the use of the term in other everyday contexts (not merely introducing a technical term). And an activity of explaining is what an interpretation is in the everyday sense!! (This is what Wittgenstein calls a "reminder". It’s perfectly obvious, but it becomes invisible to us.
The significance of this last point is this: Being an activity, people interpret for different reasons. And the very idea of different textual kinds (legal/literary, etc.) has to do with the reasons why people are interested in interpreting in the first place. And part of the interest of this idea is that it begins to show you how to make sense of the pluralism of interpretations in some discursive domains (this, I take it is a commonplace in lit. crit. and the performing arts, for example), without any story about the conditions of the possibility of textual meaning being involved at all (as in Fish, de Man, et. al.): It just has to do with why we are interested in literature, and in interpreting it, what it is good for, etc. In my paper, this is expressed as the idea of divorcing critical pluralism from the deconstructive version. (This idea - interpretation as explanation for a reason - has other kinds of interest as well.)
This, too me, is really the heart of the paper; Fish is only a kind of negative illustration: how not to talk about interpretation. He’s a case of someone who should have understood this, and does grasp it at times; But he is much too obsessively taken with philosophy (in the negative mode of negation and denial) to ever see it really clearly.
I go into this - into the basic conflict within Fish’s work - in my paper on Fish in Gary Olsen (ed.), Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise.
In any case, the idea is this: Look for interpretation under your feet, rather than over your head. (The material towards the end of the paper (contrasting law and literature) best illustrates this.
What this has to do with Wittgenstein is of course indirect (as it should be): It’s not a matter of using his ideas to critique anything. It’s just a matter of feeling free - and sufficiently uninhibited by theory - to ask a different sort of question: not about "texts" and language and indeterminacy of meaning and all that stuff, but: why are we interested in literature and in interpreting it? (Or start with the first person singular version of this question.) In today’s intellectual environment, this is going to sound naive, but here’s what I think people can learn from Wittgenstein: Trust these questions. Trust them long enough and you’ll discover that literature (and a great deal of theory, even if doesn’t always know this about itself) is about them too (as it would of course have to be, as would only be expected.)
Now a brief comment on something John said:
Of course the issues of Critical Philosophy (the Kantian turn) are relevant to literary criticism and the reading of literature - this isn’t news to me, and I’d be the last to disagree. In fact, I share his interest in German Romanticism, and in the perception which emerges there (in Schlegel, for example) of the common task of literature and philosophy. So of course of course, literary critics should be thinking about Kant and Hegel and all the rest, who could possibly deny it?
Nonetheless, there is no "slip" that I can see in my paper. The contrast in the passage you quote is between: (1) a question about what a text means; and (2) a question about how it is so much as possible for any noises and marks to have any meaning, just as such. 99% of the confusion surrounding Fish is simply the result of the failure to make apparent (or perspicuous as LW would say) that HIS question must eventually - afer enough interpretive regress, after enough critics are "wrong again" (and always for the same reason) - come to (2). That this isn’t apparent is almost the entire problem.
In contrast, literary criticism, no matter how Kant-involving it is, no matter how much it makes "conditions of possibility" questions thematic (Fish does this himself in his Milton work) is always asking a question of the form of (1); if it wasn’t it would’t be literary criticism. Otherwise put, literary criticism is a response (something guided by the meaning of ) a literary text. Now, say what you like about the importance of Kantian themes, this doesn’t change.
So I would stand by what I said. Critics are asking what a text means (of course, there are many way of formulating questions of this form); Fish is asking for an account of how anything could mean anything.
But part of what is interesting here is the kind of imagination that develops around the *sound* of things ....The simplicity of wittgenstein’s sound, for example, is very deceptive for someone brought up on literary theory-cum-Derrida. A whole topic in itself - which Derrida himself has touched on.
(Having said this, I can also see how the formulation of mine John quotes is misleading. I’d probably put it differently now. The thought isn’t that literary critics aren’t interested in critical theory - of course not. The important thing is just ferreting out what Fish’s question has to be about, distinguishing it from the question it merely *sounds* like he might be about.
On Derrida’s Limited Inc.: I myself wouldn’t try to decide between true and false in a critical discussion of it - I think that often leads to misunderstanding with Derrida. Why not say: Tell me what you mean - the language game - of "unique" and "rigorously controllable" and I’ll tell you whether it is so or not. Every word here is sublimed. As if someone were to say to you, "there are no absolute guarantees". Which Derrida does say. And to this I’d want to say: If it makes *sense* to speak of "absolute guarantees," then there certainly are such things. (Two insurance policies: the basic guarantee, and for $100 more the absolute guarantee!). And the same with every other word in Derrida. Derrida is someone who thinks that philosophy itself provides a self-standing context for using these words; Wittgenstein doesn’t think that philosophy in that sense exists.
Wittgenstein’s power to get in Derrida’s way is the subject of my "Wittgenstein on Deconstruction" in Cary and Read (ed.) The New Wittgenstein - for those who might be interested.
I’d like to interject a couple os “amen, brother“‘s after “interpretation as explanation for a reason” and “why are we interested in literature and in interpreting it?” The Wittgenstein motto that reminds me of this point is from PI section 108: “the axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need.” It’s a practical idea: faced with an intractable problem, try to find another line of attack. When an argument seems to have bogged down, perhaps it might help all parties to remind themselves of why they got into it in the first place.
& it’s not as if this stops the argument. What is our “real need”? (& I’m not sure at all it’s located at a “fixed point").
Martin, you say that “an interpretation is [obviously] a kind of explanation.” Now I know that half to 4/5 of this disagreement stems from different meanings of the word “interpretation”; still I wonder if the obviousness of your statement comes partly from the way that you phrase it.
Try this change: “Interpreting is a kind of explaining.” This seems far less obvious, even in “everyday” and ordinary usage. If I am interpreting your puzzling (or puzzled) facial expression, am I explaining it? Or am I just trying to figure out what it means?
To be sure, sometimes this activity happens quickly and habitually; sometimes this happens slowly and programmatically. But it may happen all the same.
Martin, I have a few inchoate reactions to your fascinating essay. One is that it’s very helpful in clarifying a crucial problem at the heart of the intentionalist view of meaning that Fish shares with Knapp and Michaels. All three, if I understand correctly, share the view that interpreting (as in searching for, or perhaps explaining, the meaning of a text) must be the same operation as reading a group of words and recognizing that syntactically they make a good sentence. That seems an unlikely conflation. I realize that I’m just putting your point in a different context. But since I’ve been thinking about this, I’m grateful to see the issue addressed.
Another is that it frames nicely an interesting feature of Fish’s view of law that’s been nagging me and that I’ve been meaning to talk about at the Valve for sometime—though I’m totally unqualified to do so. In his forthcoming essay in the San Diego Law Review, Fish offers a strong intentionalist account of legal interpretation--judges must either search for the intention of legislators or impose their own or others’ meanings on the law—and claims that judges and literary critics therefore perform precisely the same operation. But he then goes on to say that, of course, judges have other responsibilities than interpretation alone. E.g., they must consider regularity, predictability, equity, politics, etc. So the difference between literary critics and judges is that judges do interpretation plus. This gives a fuller picture of what judges do than Fish first seems prepared to offer. But it comes at the cost of dividing the job of deciding cases into autonomous component parts (first interpretation, then social engineering) that in practice don’t seem to be separated. Moreover, the implication of that division, I think, is that interpretation has a kind of intellectual rigor and credibility that addressing equity, predictability, etc. lacks. (This was the suggestion of Fish’s recent op-ed, I believe, where the implication seemed to me pretty strong that you can divide good nominees from bad according to how far they emphasize the Fish version of interpretation over other concerns.) I take it that you’d want to say something like Fish’s view of judging as interpretation plus is an awkward effort to get around the fact that judging and literary interpretation are just different practices with different goals and concerns.
Finally, a completely unformed thought. I find your argument compelling, but note that it depends heavily on the sense that literary interpretation is a custom different from other forms of reading. You offer one good explanation for the lack of interest Fish and others might have in that view by pointing to the implausibility of ontological arguments about the special qualities of literary language. There are other related reasons, of course, including frustration with a sense of literature as rarified or decorative. I suspect that Fish’s motivation for his ambitious arguments may be a version of that frustration—and more specifically with the way in which a view of literature as the activity where people value a text’s ability to generate multiple interpretations can lead to the impression that the only goal of writing about literature is to come up with something interesting. I suspect Fish thinks that’s trivial. He loves argument and it must dismay him to encounter the impression that literary criticism is a field where just anything goes or whose main goal is novelty. I realize that impression doesn’t follow necessarily from your argument, but, if this is his attitude, I sympathize with Fish deeply since when I interpret a text, I don’t think of it as an object but as a view whose full implications I want to discover. But I’m not a philosopher, so I haven’t bothered to come up with a theory to justify that. (all of this is probably just a long-winded version of Peter’s question.)
Lawrence--exactly right, in my opinion. There is no other philosopher I know of who has such an accute sense of the way we mistake our own needs--which often means mistaking essentially practical questions (which demand answers born of practical knowledge--i.e., the knowledge one has by *being* an agent, not observing agents or theorizing about them) for specualtive/theoretical problems. This *is* what makes Wittgenstein Wittgenstein.
Peter-- Yes, first of all I shouldn’t have used the word “obviously”. There is nothing obvious about it; if it were we wouldn’t have the problem. This is the region in which Wittgenstein locates philosophical, or what *he* means by that: the non-obviousness (non-apparentness) of what is obvious! The solution is always just to find a way of representing things (he calls it a “perspicuous representation") which makes things apparent, which elicits recognition.
Now, in the case of “interpretation” this is actually something I’m working on (in a long ms.), and, as you point out, it isn’t easy. My sense is that questions about whether things happen quickly or not (the facial expression) is on the wrong track-- I can’t see that anything here should turn on how much time things take. As between, “interpretation is a kind of explanation” (which is how I put things) and “interpreting is a kind of explaining” (your formulation) I’m equally happy. What is more ordinary (in the sense of colloquial) isn’t I think important, and that’s not the philosphically relevent sense of “ordinary” anyway. The point in either case is that we are locating “to interpret” as one species of the genus “to explain”. Another species of the same genus is —so I argue in the same unpublished ms.—to give a causal explanation. (It’s certainly colloquial to call causal explanations “interpretations” --i.e., modern sciences’ “interpretation” of what makes rain, in place of an earlier “interpretation”; but the point is not what we call things, but trying to grasp the unity of a certain concept--interpretation-- as it applies in certain contexts (roughly what are called the humanities.). As you can see, this isn’t going to be simple; that is why I said the Lit Witt essay is just a start. But I’ll offer just one more thought about your example: the question you’re really raising is what an “explanation” is. If interpretations are, as I say, a species of explanation, so that interpeting is one form of explaining, then what is explaining a species of? The answer is that it isn’t a species of anything-- you could call it a lighting, a clearing, an elucidating (if you want to go Heideggeresse here.) The strange Heideggerian words one reaches for when one tries to explain what an explanation is--lighting, shining, clearing, orientation, etc.--may help one to understand just what is meant by saying an interpretation is a species of explanation: interpretations, this says, are a form of elucdiation, they put light where there was darkness, they make something appear in their objects. This is the sense in which, for example, Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg are “interpretations” (they bring something to light), while a teacher’s performative iteration of the class role isn’t an interpretation of it.
I can put this very briefly now: Before objecting to “interpretation as explanation”, people should ask themselves, “and what is an *explanation?*” For one can hardly object before one has an answer to that!!
Sean--yes, there is often a picture lurking in the background of interpetation as giving life to dead marks (interpretation as what distinguishes a sign with meaning from mere squiggles.) It’s a hopeless picture. But it’s the old problem of apparentness again which is at the heart of Wittgenstein: if it were apparent that this what the interpetivist was thinking, they would no longer think it! So they are thinking it and they are not! This is what makes it so difficult to intervene in these disucssions in the right way. Wittgenstein whole method is a struggle with this problem: in many cases, there is no formulation of what the thought is, because there is no thought (there merely *appears* to be one). So one has to try different provisional approaches to it.
About the law: yes I’d want to say something like what you suggest. Maybe I can illustrate things like this. Being an activity, people interpret, here and there, for different reasons; and **what** they are doing, in each case, is related to their resaons for doing it. Thus, when a judge interprets, he also **deciding the rights and obligations of the parties**; and that is not an apt description of what literary critics or performers do when they interpret. So interpretion isn’t everywhere the same. Now my view is that, not only is intepretation quite structually different in law and literature, but it is different in important ways within certain sub-regions of the law as well. Private law problems have a formal structure all their own, for example, and so do certain constitutional problems. A discourse likes Fish’s is bound to make all of this very, very difficult to see clearly. Against the background of such “sublimings” of interpretation, it becomes a tremendous difficulty just to describe things accurately. One can appreciate here why LW says that his philosophy merely describes things. Some people are rubbed the wrong way by that-- as if it were too modest an aim for philosophy. But one needs to read this against the background of Wittgenstein’s showing just how enormously hard it is for us to do just *that* (as soon as things become a little complicated.) --So yes, in brief, I want to look at law, and the sub-regions of law, and try to see what is going on, without starting by bringing to it a theory of what must be going on, just in virtue of the fact that we are dealing with language, meaning, texts, etc. (The only advantage of such a theory, it strikes me, is that it allows one to get *one* idea in one’s head and never have to learn anything else! Graduate students, I’ve noticed, are often particularly attracted to the One Idea course. No doubt it has something to do with professional anxieties. I felt it’s attractions once too. So, as goes without saying in philosophy of the Wittgensteinian kind, I write partly in self-critique here! (The stuff about “the friend” in my Fish essay--I meant it quite literally: not just that he is a former colleague and friend, but the friend as “another myself” (as Aristotle says).
Your last paragraph strikes me as very to the point, but raises too many thoughts for me just now. Mere novelty and decoration--certainly not. But having said that: there is an abiding human interest, I think in both the conservation of meaning and in the exposure of something new. And this has something to do with all the discourses we call ‘interpretive” (law, literature, etc.) So I wouldn’t completely under-rate novelty. When a performer’s interpretation (of Hamlet, of the Goldberg) doesn’t show us something new, we call it “hackneyed,” “stale” ,etc. ). This is a clue to the reason we are interested in interpreting here; such terms don’t apply to a judge’s interpretaion of the law, thank god-- nothing wrong here if intepretation doesn’t reveal the novel, but only conserves the meaning that was there, expresses it in the particular case. So again, look at cases, and you’ll see novelty has its place where it has its place. “Decoration” is harder. I want to think more about this. There is something which the “decorators” do (or the so called “decorative arts” do,) which shares something in common with interpretation. Gadamer (Truth and Method) calls it fittingness, and has some interesting things to say about it.
It’s really gratifying to get such three deep and percpetive comments straight off! I’m going to have to figure out how to manage the time problem--I’m writing very quickly here, and predict that my responses will soon become much, much briefer. But in this haste: If I accidently should say that some unobvious matter in plain view is in fact obvious and not, being in plain view, hidden (a la Poe, yes)-- forgive me. !
Thanks for these very perceptive responses. I’m grateful. Much to think about.
For the record, I did mean ‘slip’ in the sense of ‘produce an unintended impression’. But let’s stick with the ‘how post-Kantian is it?’ question about literary studies, by way of working round to your main point. You write:
literary criticism, no matter how Kant-involving it is, no matter how much it makes “conditions of possibility” questions thematic (Fish does this himself in his Milton work) is always asking a question of the form of (1) [a question about what a text means]; if it wasn’t it would’t be literary criticism. Otherwise put, literary criticism is a response (something guided by the meaning of) a literary text. Now, say what you like about the importance of Kantian themes, this doesn’t change.
What seems to me noteworthy is the extent to which English departments have in fact diversified their intellectual holdings, as it were, to the point where they are no longer primarily in the literary criticism business.
Scott wrote a post a few days ago, which was more or less an attempt to prove by example that there is such a thing as Theory culture in literary studies. Class descriptions for grad seminars begin with sentences like: “The purpose of this seminar is to submit the theme of Alterity and the binary epistemic regime it exemplifies to rigorous critique.” And: “This course will provide both an introduction to psychoanalytic theories of race from Freud to the present and revisit psychoanalysis in light of postcolonial and critical race theories.” And: “The concept of culture is the one that is typically invoked today when we want to examine the question of identity, but what exactly do we mean when we use the term ‘culture’?” And: “What is vision? How does it work? What role does it play in giving the world a form?”
Like Scott, I hasten to add that I don’t mean to hold these sentences up to mockery by isolating them - what silly-sounding stuff! Not at all. Rather, the point is just that these are clearly philosophy classes, not classes about literary criticism, in anything like the traditional sense of ‘practical criticism’.
The English department has established itself as a sort of second philosophy department, specializing in post-Kantian critical philosophy (very roughly speaking.) I hasten to add that this is not an automatic objection. Not unless the philosophy is done badly, which is a separate question. (You might say: the English department saw some intellectual ground which American philosophy departments were neglecting, and made it their own. Jonathan Culler says this, for example.) My present point would be: a source of the impulse to sublime terms like ‘interpretation’ - or ‘text’ - is that it makes what English departments have claimed for their own seem more cohesive. Saying ‘this is the department of saying what literary texts mean and doing post-Kantian philosophy’ sounds a bit grue-ish and disjunctive. Saying ‘this is the department of critical studies’ or ‘interpretive studies’ makes it easy not to mind the gaps so much. Well, that’s too cynical. Perhaps there really turns out to be some deep reason why practical literary criticism and post-Kantian philosophy should be one discipline (cf. Schlegel and other excitable Germans). But this much is right: the push to hold the English department together, given its current holdings, tends to be a push towards the ‘sublime’ - if you will. ‘Sublime’ philosophical answers will be much more welcome than others. To quote from your paper again: “In Fish’s argument, by contrast, “interpretation” begins to look like another name for – an occupant of the same explanatory place as – divinity: it is the terminus of all other explanations of meaning, the condition on which they depend.” If Fish is right, it helps make sense of the set of things being taught in the English department. What English professors do when being practical critics turns out to be a type, or emblem - the very key to cracking the crib of reality. The tools of the critic turn out to be the tools of the metaphysician. On the other hand, if we follow Wittgenstein - resisting the temptation to sublime ‘text’, ‘interpretation’, being skeptical of deep metaphysical plunges - then English’s sense of disciplinary coherence may end up at risk.
(It is worth adding: if Wittgenstein turns out to be right about much at all, the philosophy department’s sense of disciplinary coherence is probably shot as well.)
As usual, I have some nearly, perhaps completely, off topic comments!
When trying to apply literary interpretation to the law, there’s a couple things to remember.
First, “the law” is heavily reified in practice. Its NOT just the words on the page. Judges often say they are “interpreting a statute,” but often what they’re really doing is “finding the law.” This means they reference things like common practices, precedents, political science arguments about government, and so forth. Everyone does this, even the judges who most claim they are not.
Second, people doing legal interpretation wantonly conflate different types of interpretation. You constantly see arguments in court decisions or in legal writing where the author makes an argument about essentially political science, then says that we should presume that the framers or (or other actors relevant to) the law in question intended a particular interpretation because of the political science argument. In essence, they conflate the policy making type issues with original intent type interpretation. Again, everyone does this, even the judges who most claim they are not.
I guess what I’m saying here is that interpretation of written text is only a part of what goes on in “interpreting the law.” So its a little dangerous to try to work cross disciplines here.
I would, however, agree that its an excellent example of how one’s goals influence how one interprets text. That also brings out one of the biggest problems I used to have in undergraduate with literary studies. I could never figure out the *point.* The point never seemed to be what I expected it to be when I took a class in the “english” department.
I expected to read books, and study how the authors used the structure of the novel to accomplish various goals. For example, how J.K. Rowling used the structure of her first several Harry Potter books to set up a comfortable system for the readers: Harry is at the Dursleys, Harry goes to Hogwarts, Harry has classes, Harry has hijinks, Harry is swept up in a conflict, Harry wins, there’s the year end dinner, and due to Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Griffindor wins with the most points at the end of the year. Then, in book four, Rowling breaks the whole pattern up, dropping the comfortable, reassuring year end dinner, the points, all of it. The book ends with a feeling of ominousness, which is created not just by the events of the book, but also by the psychological effect on the reader of creating an expectation of a particular well wrapped up ending, then not delivering.
See, that’s what I thought it would be. But it wasn’t what I got. I imagine this sort of thing goes on in english departments somewhere, but it wasn’t what I found.
Which gets me back to my basic thesis that I’ve been harping on for ages! That english departments jerk around undergraduates, and should stop. Maybe undergrads wouldn’t come out of english classes convinced that the entire subject is complete nonsense if it were in some way disclosed that the *point* of the class they’re about to take isn’t so much to do the things they’ve previously thought counted as taking an english class, but instead to discuss cultural studies, with books as a means of mediating that discussion.
Thanks for the generous reply, Martin. But this:
it’s the old problem of apparentness again which is at the heart of Wittgenstein: if it were apparent that this what the interpetivist was thinking, they would no longer think it!
isn’t really true. Fish, Knapp and Michaels are quite aware that their view must see reading and interpreting as coterminous. They all contend directly that, without an effort to interpret the intention of a speaker, words are just squiggles.
John, it may be true that English deparments are attracted to subliming interpretation by a need for cohesion, but that may not be ultimatately that important. If as Martin suggests, which seems right to me, basic efforts of scholarship and interpretation proceed without needing to go this route, then it should be possible for the discipline to just back away from the post-Kantian without, say, having to explicitly repudiate it. It’s true that English has diversified its holdings massively over the last couple of decades, but it’s also true that the study of literature just proceeds right alongside it. In fact, my guess is that there are more and more people who recognize the kitschy insubstantiability of the theoretical sublime and who will just ignore it more or less to go about their business.