Where Meaning Stands

QuadrigaRules do not prevent bad interpretations. No one really supposes that they do, I hope; do we imagine a scene in which Dan Brown considers writing a megablockbuster novel, but then realises that his interpretive background for the novel and its claims that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” were arrant poppycock, and so realises he simply can’t publish the novel. No one thinks there are sessions at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at which a panelist jumps up and silences an interlocutor by saying “But you’ve broken this rule of interpretation.” Moreover, what would these “rules” be, and how did they come into effect? Before the interpretive rule, was misinterpretation not reckoned? Do interpretive rules govern everyone, or only those who assent to them (and if they don’t govern everyone, of just what use are they)?

The short answer to these question dodges their specifics, and gets straight to the heart of the matter: interpretive rules have [at least] two functions, one creditable, and one disreputable. The creditable use of interpretive rules sets them out as a guideline for the learner, or as an internal criterion for a more experienced interpreter. We don’t learn about interpretation all in one go, in a moment of blinding insight, and interpretive rules help us make our way from “whatever I feel like” toward “what makes sense to the people around me.” Such use of interpretive rules serves as a shorthand for “We resolve this sort of semantic or semiotic confusion according to that principle.” The disreputable reason for wanting interpretive rules is so that one can control interpretation. In the long run, this never works, but in the short run it can function to silence obstreperous dissenters. If it really worked, you would probably never have heard of Dan Brown.

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