How to Interpret a Text

 

 

There are several different schools about how to interpret a text.  Here are a few:

1) A text should be interpret the way the author intended it.

2) A text should be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly.  We should come up with as many different interpretations as possible, stretching it every which way it can go.

3) A text should be interpreted in such a way that its meaning will benefit society the most.

4) A text should be interpreted as a symptom of a society, by which we can identify how it replicates and re-entrenches mendacious social structures (sexism, racism, heteronormativity, class hierarchy, and so on).

5) A text should be interpreted in such a way that its meaning subverts itself.

(By no means are these exhaustive.  We could come up with many more.)

Obviously, over the course of the 20th century, (1) went way out of fashion.  But though academics again and again argued against (1), they rarely distinguished between (2), (3), (4), and (5) - which is awfully odd, to my mind, because (2), (3), (4), and (5) are so different from each other.  I would say that they are more different from each other than any of them are from (1).  They differ from each other radically, whereas, depending on the author and the text in question, they may only be a subtle shade of difference away from (1).  Indeed, for many texts it seems fairly obvious to say that (5) is identical to (1).

(3) and (4), in particular, seem to me to be more or less opposites.  To engage in (3) is to look at a text through rose-colored glasses, seeing only what one wants to see and disregarding the rest.  One might call this the "apologetic" reading, and there are certainly many people who try to do this with authors like Heidegger, Schmitt, and others.  (3) might be considered a Rortian technique of reading.  (5) is a deconstructive reading.  And (4), which is quite different from either (3) or (5), is what is done in millions of undergraduate essays about novels every year.  It is the opposite of looking through rose-colored glasses. I'm not sure what you'd call that - puke-colored glasses?  "The hermeneutics of suspicion."  In this reading, you only focus on the "bad" (or "problematic") parts of the text, ignoring anything salutary you might find in it.  That said, we could add a number (6) here, which would be a kind of pastiche or melange, which one often also finds in millions of essays and books for that matter, which has no central thesis at all, but amounts to "Well, there's some good stuff, and some bad stuff, and a lot in between."

The thought leaders of academia in the 20th century were so eager to argue against (1) that they largely ignored the more important differences between the other possibilities.  And indeed, they became such fanatics about rejecting (1), that they lost track of the goal of opening up the possibilities of the interpretation of a text and instead became dogmatic prohibitionists against (1), at which point they just became kind of silly.  "The intention of the author doesn't matter at all!  The intention of the author doesn't matter at all!" they screamed, at no one, like an old cranky man yelling at a cloud.  Their rage was very entertaining and hilarious.

So what is my position?  Simple: all of the above.  And more.  I suppose you could call my position "meta-(2)".  Yes, let's do (2), and (3), and (4), and (5)... and let's do (1), as well - with one caveat: all of the above are positions contain the word "should".  I would replace that with "can".  We have many, many options.  We can investigate the symptomatic reading of a text, to learn about the society in which it was assembled; we can also re-interpret in a way that seems more beneficial to us.  We can focus on its self-subversion and contradiction.  We can be daredevils, and come up with wild, experimental new ways of interpreting a text, pushing it to its limit.  And, in addition to all of that, we can consider the author's intention.  That doesn't really contradict any of the other possibilities.  It doesn't spoil or ruin a text, or make it impossible for me to interpret it differently than the author.  There's nothing stopping us from doing any and all of the above.  The sky's the limit. 

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