(I've placed the bulk of this post below the fold because I wanted to prevent the automatic trackback from automatically tracking back, but also because I realize that not everyone is as invested in debunking the reductio ad absurdum of my own theoretical position as I am. That said, I wrote most of this last week and have spent the past two days beneath a pile of finals, so I'm not sure what exactly happened over here, only that it became not at all the sort of silly I'd intended. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to grading.)
The title of this post (from this comment by Jeff Goldstein) certainly cuts to the chase; unfortunately, that chase occurs in an Antonioni film, which means you need not buckle up because we are about to slow it down and look at it repeatedly and from all conceivable angles until finally we go outside and watch the grass grow for a change of pace:
The New Critics thought they were democratizing interpretation. Thing is, interpretation is and should be an exercise in totalitarianism.
There are two problems with these sentences: in the first, Goldstein makes the mistake of taking the New Critics at their word, because while they claimed to be democratizing interpretation, the New Critics were, in fact, selling a bill of goods that was valuable only because it conformed to an aesthetic theory that already valued ambiguity, i.e. their own. The problem with the second sentence is, on the one hand, the notion that interpretation should be an exercise in totalitarianism, and on the other, more fundamental mistake that what Goldstein thinks should be the purview of interpretation is, for him, identical to what interpretation is. As we all know, the claim that something should be something differs from the claim that something is something by virtue of wishing really really hard. In short, when Goldstein says that his methodology has "properly described" something, he is attempting to naturalize his claims such that they cease being arguments and become statements. The irony, of course, is that in order to do this he must write posts so long even his most devoted readers only ever skim them, which is a good thing: were they to pay too much attention to the argumentative work required to transform an arguable theory into a mundane declaration of fact, they might begin to wonder why the magician needs to climb the curtains and swing across the stage into a barrel of freezing water just to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
But let me give Goldstein his due: his obscenely strict notion of what constitutes interpretation proper is widely accepted by the very theorists he dismisses when applied to the spoken word.* So, for example, Paul Ricoeur argues that with speech, "the subjective intention of the speaker and the discourse's meaning overlap each other in such a way that it is the same thing to understand what the speaker means and what his discourse means" (Interpretation Theory 29). In short, because the original context suffuses the moment when a statement is initially uttered aloud, the intention of the person who made it can be clearly identified; moreover, if confusion as to that intention exists, it can be immediately clarified within that same context, and therefore all "interpretation" necessarily refers back to that speaker's intent.
When discussing contemporary politics with people on the internet, Goldstein's insistence on interpreting according to the standards of spoken language is an arguable position, so long as we 1) devalue the status of written words made of digital bits and 2) grant that online communication occurs in an environment whose immediacy is equivalent to (or approaches the immediacy of) spoken conversation. Goldstein's never argued that—and even if he did, there are many possible objections, especially concerning the idea that context is as immediate online as it is in life—but if he had, I could see that as a possible basis for thinking his position a sound one.** However, he has never seen fit to distinguish between spoken and written language. If you read through his archives, he consistently conflates the two via the process of signification:
What I’ve argued is that meaning is precisely fixed at the time of signification: when I turn a signifier into a sign, that’s what I meant, and what I meant doesn’t change simply because some epistemological system points out that people can do things with texts that problematize the interpretative procedure, or that, even under the most perfect conditions, one can never really prove that they have properly decoded what I encoded, because there is no final judge to whom one may appeal for just such an assurance.
Even if we grant that an identical process of signification governs both spoken and written language (not to mention its bastard child of stuff written on the internet) and lump them together as occuring at "the scene of utterance," there is still the fact that, as Michaels and Knapp argue in "Against Theory 2" (1987):
[T]he claim that intention cannot govern the scene of utterance seems to us correct. Even if, as we have argued, intention determines meaning, there can be no guarantee that the intended meaning will be understood. To say that the author cannot govern the scene of utterance is only to say that the author cannot enforce communication. (61)
Goldstein's theoretical ought only becomes a practical is, then, when he can "govern the scene of utterance [and] enforce communication," i.e. in a conversation in which instant clarification can appeal to immediate context—which, again, could be a category of conversation to which online discourse belongs (depending, of course, on which parent the bastard resembles more). Note, however, that Goldstein's claim that "interpretation is and should be an exercise in totalitarianism" replaces that possible argument with what amounts to a semantic fiat—and an incoherently Kantian one at that—that requires listeners or readers to place absolute faith in the honesty and integrity of the speaker or author who wields it. The practical result of this is, unsurprisingly, that every time someone claims that Goldstein has written something offensive, he responds that not only has that person misunderstood him, but that, by virtue of semantic fiat, it is impossible for Goldstein to have meant what that person thought he did, because "meaning is precisely fixed at the time of signification" and trust him that wasn't it. But what if you don't?
For example, what if you were William Faulkner writing in Life in March 1956, and you conjectured about what you'd say to the the NAACP and "all the organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration" and came up with this:
Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment. You have the power [of the federal government] now; you can afford to withhold for a moment the use of it as a force. You have done a good job, you have jolted your opponent off-balance and he is now vulnerable. But stop there for a moment; don't give him the advantage of a chance to cloud the issue by that purely automatic sentimental appeal to the same universal human instinct for automatic sympathy for the underdog simply because he is under. (51-52)
Here is where Goldstein's trouble starts: Faulkner's intent is obvious here, but his motivations are suspect; and because his motivations are suspect, it would be interpretively irresponsible for a reader to give Faulkner the benefit of the doubt. A responsible reader will take that statement, weigh the history of race relations in America against a rhetorical appeal to a "universal instinct for automatic sympathy for the underdog," and infer that Faulkner is either an idiot (and therefore lacks ethos in the strong Aristotelian sense of not providing within a single utterance evidence of intellectual and moral competence) or that he is being disingenuous (and therefore lacks ethos in the strong Aristotelian sense of not providing within a single utterance evidence of intellectual and moral competence). Any attempt on Faulkner's part to "govern the scene of utterance [and] enforce communication" would not merely be, to use Goldstein's term of art, totaliterian—it would be tyrannical.
*For obvious reasons, I'm drawing a lot of material from notes titled michaels.knapp.hermeneutics.may.2002.doc, so I'm relying heavily on Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp for my citations here here.
**He could argue, for example, that hermeneutic theories like Ricoeur's require the language in question to be self-evidently literary, such that the distance between the spoken and written word is only created when what's written down is a special category of language that is never, in fact, spoken. This would account for the difference between The Domesday Book and Chaucer, for example, and there is an argument to be made that this distinction is a valuable one.