Friday, 11 December 2009

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"Interpretation is and should be an exercise in totalitarianism." (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...

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