I’m on my own tonight, so — of course — I’m watching Taggart.
In the examples I’ve been discussing, we see settings in which someone ventures expressive behaviour, which the audience then accepts or discountenances (“Keep your hands off me!” “Don’t you dare speak to me that way!”). In these examples, the authorial intention matters less than do the circumstances of the expression. We can similarly regard (let us say) the sermon and the academic lecture as settings wherein authorial intention may also matter less than it does in other discursive settings. In the sermon, the specific intent of a prophet, an evangelist, a law-giver or epistolary apostle may be taken up and subsumed into a greater comprehensive consepctus of what message should be proclaimed for that congregation in those days (of course, if one ascribes authorial agency to God, we suppose that the message ought always be guided by the author’s intention; but since God’s intentions are even less accessible than human intentions — ”My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” — and since the Bible is not always immediately transparent to any alleged divine intention, I bracket that possibility for the time being). Similarly, the technical biblical scholar justifiably derives clues for interpretation from unintentional aspects of the text. One can think of other examples of interpreters drawing inferences from unintended circumstances as well: the detective, the psychoanalyst, the harbour pilot.
The difference between a sound and an unsound interpretation, then, need not be measured by their relative approximation of an author’s intention. A harbour pilot who navigates her cargo to the dock, reading the waves, winds, traffic, and instrument panel, has undertaken a successful interpretation. The criterion of success in that case draws on very widely-recognised standards. Audiences apply less generally accepted standards for a successful classroom lecture or Sunday sermon, but the relatively smaller domain of shared criteria doesn’t imply that no standards obtain, or that the criteria are less important. Expressive endeavours require interpretive response, and different response call forth critical evaluation of the expression and response. Such scholars as Nicholas Lash, Fracnes Young, Stephen Fowl, and Stephen Barton have discussed this phenomenon as interpreting biblical texts as performance; here I simply add my testimony to theirs, with the caveat that sometimes, some other proponents of interpretation-as-performance adhere (to my mind, misguidedly) to the authorial criterion. Just as a performance of Mahler’s Ninth or Waiting for Godot or a still life with fruit and game need not match an authorial intentional in order to succeed in some discourses, so biblical interpretation correctly draws on authorial criteria in some circumstances more than others.
On Meaning, the all-in-one page
Boing Boing kindly linked to the ten-year anniversary of my having been challenged by the Nantucket Island police for using the library’s open wireless signal at a time when the library was closed. Awkwardly, in the time since Boing Boing first posted that story, I have changed over blogging software from Moveable Type to WordPress, which knocked out the original link — the link Boing Boing provided points instead to a blog interaction with the great Jeneane Sessum; I’ve put point-ahead link at the top of my page with Jeneane, and twittered Boing Boing about the mix-up, but if you went first to the page with Jeneane, then to the front page of the blog, the link for which you’re looking is here.
The premise of the two preceding paragraphs boils down to the importance of learning widely and deliberating expansively in order to attain the best, soundest possible interpretation. That principle applies as far as informing our interpretive discernments, but it does not require that any given field of considerations govern all interpretive responses. The legendary “author’s intention” provides a vital case in point; most of the time, practically all of the time, we benefit from at least asking orselves the question “Why did she express herself this way? What did she intend?” In various circumstances, though, the intent of an agent matters less than the expression itself. A White guy can with jocular tones shout to his colleague, “Yo, n*****!” and claim “I only meant to greet him in a friendly, ironically outrageous sort of way” — but if his colleague takes offence at this greeting, many would agree that the expression rightly be deemed offensive (even if the “author” did not so intend it). A great amount of the discourses surrounding sexual harassment set the intent of the agent (“I just gave her a friendly, encouraging hug”) over against the interpretation of the interpreter (“He enveloped me with his arms, making it difficult for me to escape his grasp, and then fondled my rear”). In cases such as these, especially where the power of social privilege falls squarely on the side of the one claiming innocence for his offensive behaviour, one can make a sound case that the intention matters less than the effect, and need not be taken into consideration.
Or take another example: some Bible interpreters know the text of the Bible (in the translation with which they are more familiar) exceptionally well, but know very little about the ancient Near East, Greco-Roman culture, the biblical languages, the reception of the Bible over the centuries, comparative mythology, ancient history, the modes of interpretive clarification which political criticisms, social-scientific criticisms, literary criticism (in the sense of “ordinary” literary criticism), source, redaction, form, or [YOUR FAVOURITE HERE] criticism. They exercise what we might describe as a vernacular canonical criticism (keeping the explanatory frame of their interpretations within the bounds of the Christian canon) and theological criticism (taking as granted the theological conclusions that dominant streams of the church have defined as authoritative). So if one points to an interpretive problem, they aim to resolve it by interpreting it in light of another text. Often, an academic technician such as I would say, “But that text doesn’t apply; it’s addressing an entirely different situation, in a different historical and narrative setting!” My objection takes for granted, however, the priority of differences in style, apparent historical context, semantics and syntax, and probably extra-canonical comparative material. My interlocutor and I talk at cross-purposes, until one or both of us extends the range of our interests and considerations to include criteria to which the other adheres.
On Meaning, the all-in-one page
Nothing will protect you from interpretive error. No way of reading will ensure that you’ve understood or implemented the text correctly. You can, however, increase the likelihood of a sound or commendable interpretation in a number of ways. Most of them boil down to “loving what you’re interpreting so much that you willingly, eagerly, seek out more and more aspects and dimensions of the text” (here, “the text” meaning in the principal case “the Bible”, but more generally “whatever you’re interpreting, whether a gesture, a pastry, a painting, a film, a poem, whatever). When I was a kid, I so loved baseball that I wanted to understand it inside out. I played some — as well as my athletic gifts permitted, which mostly meant “throwing a tennis ball against the strike zone chalked on the outside wall of the gym while pretending I was pitching for the Orioles,” although there was also a catastrophic year of Little League. I attended baseball camp and was advised by coaches and sometimes real baseball players (!!). I watched a lot of ball games. I studied baseball history. I analysed baseball, in the way one did before the advent of sabermetrics. I played, devised, refined, and played again a series of baseball simulations. I understood a lot about baseball from exploring, considering, studying, trying (and failing), and keeping at it. In no way was my understanding definitively correct, but my interpretations of baseball depended on specific reasons I could cite and explain.
Likewise my understanding of the Bible has been enhanced by study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, by learning about the ways that generations of readers have construed it, by observing ways that artists have represented it, by observing and participating in the organised practice of shaping community life more closely to reflect what we read therein, and so on. If I were to say, “I love baseball, but I hate mathematical analysis of it” (as many people do), one could make a plausible case that my appreciation of baseball was limited by that disavowal. Likewise, if I were to say that I love the Bible, but only in the way that the churches have received it over the millennia — not in the light of what we may for heuristic purposes call disinterested historical analysis — we provide a prima facie reason for an observer to think our love of the Bible is limited, and we as much as admit that our understanding of the Bible is limited, too. In the end, some dimensions of the text and its interpretation will matter more to us for particular purposes and in particular settings. The rules of baseball are not especially fascinating as literary prose, but understanding and applying them carefully requires thorough study. One can certainly say “The baseball rules are dull as dishwater” while at the same time endeavouring conscientiously to make sure that a baseball game is played in compliance with those rules. One can even propose a poetic reading of the rules that brings out the admirable geometry of the physical dimensions of the playing field (nonetheless subject to variation in the pattern of the outfield walls and the proximity of the stands to the field), the rhetoric of reticence which studiously recoils from identifying a player or team by name, the force of the repetitive invocation of earlier rules in the later stages of the nomothetic corpus — but I doubt such an endeavour would win assent from many readers. Your poetry teacher, the ardent baseball fans among more than a hundred years of literary appreciation of baseball, and current audiences all would agree that your ardour for the poetics of the Official Baseball Rules was misplaced, and that your high estimate of their poetic qualities was erroneous. Although nothing will protect us from interpretive error, the best way to minimise the likelihood that we stray from sound interpretation into outlandish folly requires us earnestly to seek out as much as we can learn about the texts we care for, and to consider them on their merits, in consultation with other learners, with broad horizons of possibility, and articulate our interpretations carefully.
On Meaning, the all-in-one page
You may ask yourself — Why is this guy trying to hard, in so many ways, to disabuse us readers of the notion that there subsists a “meaning” as a property of a text, such that we correctly interpret that text by replicating as closely as possible the text’s subsistent meaning? This is not my beautiful text! This is not my beautiful meaning! You may ask yourself, but if you ask me I’ll reply, “Only when we recuperate from the misplaced premise of subsistent meaning can the innumerable benefits of taking an alternative approach come into clear focus. Only when we realise that we’ve been managing perfectly well without subsistent meaning can we see how much better we get along without that distraction.”
Once you accept the possibility that the extremely powerful consensus of language-users accounts sufficiently for success in linguistic communication (apart from any subsistent meaning) and, indeed, accounts much better for linguistic change and other phenomena, myriad implications crowd to mind. To take one example (one I used in my essay for Yale Div School’s Reflections), one can make the sound argument that the wisest interpretation of the Matthean Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not for an ageing white academic to write an article about the nature of parables, whether the sheep, goats, and recipients of charity are Gentiles, disciples, or any other group, but rather simply to go out and offer a meal to a hungry person. The practiced interpretation does not eclipse or invalidate the technical interpretation — and I’ll continue pursuing the more academic kind anyway, cos I just am that way — but discerning the meaning and applying the meaning aren’t necessarily separate processes. Moreover — and here we touch on a residual comfort of conventional subsistent-meaning hermeneutics — one can arrive at practiced interpretations clumsily, misguidedly, wrongly; but the same applies, as it turns out, to technical exegetical interpretation, and separating the latter out as the primary function of interpretation hasn’t demonstrably diminished the amount on interpretive “error” in churches and culture. It is more complicated than that — as is interpretation-as-practice — and neither exegetical diligence nor practical activism precludes the possibility of error. Nothing will protect you from error, or insure that you have the right interpretation that will authorise you to compel others to abide by your (that is, “the Bible’s”) command.
On Meaning, the all-in-one page
At this point — having catalogued the reasons for recuperating from the immanent-meaning hermeneutics of conventional interpretive discourses — we can better see the problems concerning “application” or about interpreting non-linguistic expression as problems that arise from taking an approach that works adequately for one particular interpretive practice and deploying it not only as a canonical method for other interpretive practices, but treating it as the authoritative approach. Thee’s nothing whatsoever wrong with looking for verbal equivalents, guided by authorial intention, when pursuing certain distinct ends. But that conventional approach misfires, stalls, falters and projects its own maladaptation onto practitioners and texts when brought to bear on non-linguistic expressions.
Linguistics scholars versed in relevance theory point to this as a breakdown of the “code metaphor”, the latent assumption that verbal (and often non-verbal expressions as well) expressions can be mapped one-to-one onto “interpretations,” in the way that a coded message can be decrypted by the methodical application of the correct process. (My paper “A Code in the Head” from the SBL a couple of years ago, which I cleverly posted over at Academia.edu instead of here, addresses this in more detail.) To repeat: rather than decrypting expressions according to “real meaning”, we venture attempts at apprehension, exchanging responses until we arrive at a mutually-agreeable state of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). Relevance theory’s extremely convincing descriptive insights illuminate the aporias that arise from embedding the code metaphor into our interpretive assumptions. It goes awry when its practitioners go forward from there to treat relevance theory’s maxims as something close to a prescriptive regimen for interpretation (just as speech-act theory helpfully describes what usually goes on in communication, but goes catty-wumpus when it assumes prescriptive authority over interpretation). Sans code, however, we do our best to apprehend the rationale and import of an expression, and respond thereunto in the way that best expresses our understanding of the expression (utterance, gesture, composition, whatever) in view.
On Meaning, the all-in-one page
If you’re interested — bless your heart — in reading all the two-paragraph bits I’m writing about hermeneutics, I’ve compiled them into a WordPress page, with links out to the comments for each particular segment. The whole thing doesn’t flow as smoothly as I’d wish, but if I were to write this for publication I would iron out the wrinkles. It’s starting to get long, considering I only write two paragraphs at a time, but over the course of a few weeks all those paragraphs add up. Anyway, the “On Meaning” link in the “Pages” bar above will take you to the “the story up to now” page.
Finally, I hope, with regard to “literal”, as Bryan Bibb has been insisting, the literal-paraphrase equivalence spectrum as it applies to translation theory doesn’t hold water. Translation, as a fundamental interpretive act, partakes always of the metaphorical and literal both, and the translator’s taste, intuition, audience, fluency, imagination, and so on all affect questions of the success of a translation. However powerfully one may prefer one translation style or another, however good one’s reasons, there will not be an intrinsically “correct” or even “better” way of translating. The right way to translate is to learn the source language — but that renders translation otiose. Just as there is no “really means”, no “intrinsic meaning”, no objective, no ideologically innocent meaning, so there is no intrinsically good, bad, right, or wrong translation.
We can assess translations based on various criteria, but (again, as Bryan points out) these always interweave with political, ideological, theological, and other considerations. The best English translation for low-complexity readers may be Good News For Modern Man; the best translation for a conservative traditionalist independent church might be the King James Version (the best designation of which may be the KJV or the Authorised Version); a “progressive” congregation may choose to read from The Scholars Version. I might criticise each of those choices, but much of the force of my criticism would be blunted by the ideological differences between me and the audiences that adopt these different translations. In exasperation, as a shorthand, I may expostulate that the Scholars Version is just a bad translation, but the force of my rant remains that it’s a translation for which I’m not a fitting audience.
Of course, many times translators, audiences, and critics have in view a sort of maximal audience — an audience that wants very broadly sound semantic and syntactical judgments, fluent apprehension of both the source and target languages, and attentive appreciation of the source culture and its differences from the target culture. In those cases, arguments about good and bad have traction (though they’re still bounded by the explicit and latent assumptions of the author, translator, critic, and audience); but a great many of the remaining arguments boil down to arguments concerning taste. The “de gustibus” maxim does not cover this quite correctly, but it does point toward the difficulty and intractability of such arguments, arguments that we cannot expect to resolve on the basis of loud claims about the “real meaning,” the “literal sense,” or “objectivity.”
Three paragraphs. So sue me.
I beg your patience — I have fallen victim to a side effect of writing two paragraphs a day, namely, that I forgot one day what on the previous day I had anticipated writing next. I meant to wrap up my literal/metaphorical screed with the following two paragraphs (at least, I hope it turns out only to be two).
Since the categories of “literal” and “metaphorical” don’t work in a straightforward way, we should be doubly suspicious about claims that that certain people do or do not read the Bible “literally.” Interpreters have long perceived one of the obvious hitches in this phenomenon — that certain elements of the Bible apparently ought not be taken literally (parables, for instance) — and have decreed that in some cases, the “literal” sense of the text is itself metaphorical. That provides a rickety, but viable, work-around, but it’s also a strong hint that the literal/metaphorical distinction entails significant conundrums. We need not restrict ouselves to abstract discussions of hermeneutical axioms, though; the plain, observable fact is that even interpreters who try to read the “literally,” for whom “literalness” marks their very public identity, do not in fact read the Bible literally. The principle of inerrancy trumps the principle of literalness, and in order to make every detail (including eschatological events that haven’t yet happened, as far as I know) warrantably correct, they construe apparently plain discourse in figurative, indirect, “symbolic” ways.*
I’m not so worried here about eschatological figures, though, as I am concerned about accusations of “literalism” (directed against conservative interpreters) and “only just a metaphor” (directed against “liberal” interpreters). When one group decries same-sex intercourse, their detractors accuse them of literalism; but those same detractors often enough proclaim that they favour feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, and so on. And similarly, when the apparent literal sense of a biblical text suggests something scandalous or unworthy about God or David or Jesus, some interpreters quickly find an indirect way of construing that passage — while others jump on it with glee, suggesting that the God whom Jews and Christians worship is a bloodythirsty, misogynistic sadist. Neither “literal” nor “metaphorical” effectively designates a consistent hermeneutical strategy. As readers, [almost] everyone needs to take some stuff “literally” and some stuff “figuratively” — but “More literal than those other guys” or “We only take the ideologically-acceptable stuff literally” don’t sell the product.
* Pointer here to Fred Clark, whose dogged work on the Left Behind series has turned up instance after instance of a situations in which a “literal” interpretation of the Bible depends on non-literal interpretive work.
Oh, phooey, I just thought of a way that “literal” stuff warrants at least another two paragraphs.
So if interpreting a text amounts to a sort of recipe in which a main ingredient is complemented, accompanied, enhanced by seasonings and cooking, one of the hoary tropes of interpretive discourse goes by the boards: namely, “the world of the text, the world behind the text, and the world in front of the text.” And I won’t miss it when it’s gone. It does appear to make sense at first, but if one takes it at all seriously, the trope’s utility rapidly dwindles and disappears. Same with “text as window, text as mirror” (and I always want to add “text as picture plane”). There’s no interpretive “behind” to a text, no “in front,” only an expression and the amplificatory adjuncts we use to complete a palatable interpretation. (No one eats their texts raw.)
What makes “the world behind the text” refer to a social, material, cultural gestalt (a “world”) different than “looking at a text in the contexts of social conventions, archaeological artefacts, and identifiable contemporary presuppositions”? Someone will say, “Don’t be such a grouch, it’s a heuristic pedagogical device!”, a mind-map for considering the relation of various interpretive regimes to the expression. Why then “behind”/“in front”? Why not “a pie of interpretive interests: some in the northwest of the compass, some in the south, some east-north-east”? My objection is not to using figures to facilitate understanding — but to reifying those models and using them sub rosa to enforce particular priorities and necessities. The “world behind the text” becomes a “real world” or a privileged originary setting; the “world in front of the text” becomes the reader’s world, distinct from and opposite to the pastness of the “behind.” The self-conscious readerly reader, though, is no more involved in discerning meaning than the self-abnegating historicist. Everyone in this game is looking at an expression, adding context until satisfied, and offering the result for social approbation. The best interpretations (by my lights, and probably by yours) involve reasoned culinary supplementation and preparation, not just “Aw, let’s just throw some spinach, clams, marmalade, and tarragon into the oven at 450° and see what it’s like after thirty-five minutes.” Culinary styles can be aggregated into schools and families, but medieval European cuisine isn’t intrinsically superior to Asian fusion. Expressions, additional information, interpretive approaches, bingo! And no “behind” or “in front.”
If we don’t think about interpretation as decoding an encrypted meaning intrinsic to a particular expression, what do I propose that we think about interpretive processes (and especially the hard kind of interpretation, where we’re genuinely puzzled by an expression about which we care)? First, when we’re trying to puzzle out an interpretation we want to, try to, learn more about that expression. We accumulate some data about the expression and about features of the expression that seem salient to us based on our histories of successful interpretation. Very often we hark back to the question of what somebody wanted us to apprehend from an expression, asking “What did she mean?” and imitating Sherlock Holmes or the CSI team, searching for clues. At other times we put less emphasis on intention (for good enough reasons), but here I submit that our cardinal activity involves digging, researching, musing, parsing, seeking — wanting more information about the expression in the expectation that when we know more about it, we will perceive how best to interpret the expression in question.
Second — granted that we’ve turned up additional information of various sorts — we pursue a variety of activities that (ideally) help us to identify a satisfying paradigm for interpreting the expression in question. We analyse the expression, breaking it down into smaller bits; we correlate it, identifying it as a single example of a larger body of known data; we aggregate it, associating it as one data point in a greater field, which might be differentially weighted and assessed; and sometimes we explode it, project from it to fields and possibilities defined less by data already in hand than by hypotheticals we imagine on the basis of the expression. These are very rough and ready distinctions — I’ve already forgotten one or two, and I’ve changed the way I describe these even as I’m typing, so I’m sure I’m wrong about some of this and you can help me do it better — but they serve the heuristic purpose of underscoring that (for instance) looking a word up in a dictionary, or trying to remember why a saint might be depicted with a square halo, or other such activities differ from identifying an expression as a parable, or a devotional icon, or a delicious bowl of lentil soup; how saying that “All Cretans are liars” differs from “Very often, Cretans have lied to me and my family, although not always, so I will not instantly give credence (nor disbelieve) what this Cretan tells me.” And all these differ from “This soup discloses the future destiny of humankind,” or “I like to think that this is about times like when I just can’t get my necktie properly tied.” We dig up more interpretive materials, then by deliberation arrive at the most satisfactory ordering of “expression plus relevant additional considerations” we can find.