Seeing It Opposite-wise

QuadrigaUp to now, we’ve been moving from non-verbal, non-glyphic communicative modes and trying to see how verbal communication functions as a remarkable, powerful, precise extension of gestural, visual, aural (etc.) expression and apprehension. As gestures, sigla, tones, even patterns of smell and texture become familiar and eventually routinised with very particular associations and expectations, so verbal expression draws on intensely formalised associations and expectations to lead auditor-readers to reach particular interpretative inferences. But Chris Spinks’s recent blog reminds me that my expression-apprehension hermeneutic leads to an equally powerful insight in another direction.

Chris cites the example of the photo of a coathook which looks distinctly like a cockeyed pugilistic octopus once that interpretation has been suggested (original source seems to be lost to the wave of online replications; perhaps this is it, as noted by Reddit in 2010). Chris suspects rightly that this sort of phenomenon stands to shed some light on the hermeneutical puzzles that have long been bothering him, and it’s just the sort of “not from within our discipline” exploration from which these two-paragraph essays emerge. Once you see that “Dans un tableau, les mots sont de la même substance que les images”/“In a picture, the words are made of the same stuff as the images”,

a great many other things come clear as well (from the Magritte section in the Beautiful Theology blog). We communicate via all manner of gestures, sounds, images, scents, touches, and more; words are at an extreme of this repertoire, an outlying data point, but they’re not sui generis. And once you get accustomed to thinking of interpretive activity in terms of expression and apprehension, of gesture and inference, or offering and uptake, a great deal of what puzzles Chris looks much less mysterious.


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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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The Dog Ate My Blog

Not really, but Monday I worked from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30, and then I went to Durham Tuesday — leaving home in Oxford at 6:00 and arriving back home between 11:15 and 11:30 in the evening. Yesterday and today have just been standard eleven-hour days (Morning Prayer begins at 7:30, Evensong ends at about 6:30), but I’ve been helping comfort Margaret, who has had a tooth extracted. I want to blog more, but I haven’t had time to think seriously about non-work matters.

Back soon, I hope.

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Semiotic Economies

QuadrigaObserve the consequences of the few paragraphs we’ve walked through. Granted that there’s no subsistent “meaning”, and granted that verbal meaning is an atypical instance of the more general phenomenon of expression and inference, I submit that words in verbal communication function in the same way as gestures do in the frantically-mimed communication of someone who has just bit his tongue (for instance); there is no single exact right meaning to them. One may propose an indefinite number of meanings, depending on one’s interests. A psychoanalyst listens to your speech with specific interest to things that you are not saying, to things that you didn’t intend to say, on the basis of which she quite justly says “The meaning of these omissions and those unintended slips is….” Her assertion is not simply the assertion of a personal preference for viewing your slips and evasions in a particular way; you are both participants in a semiotic economy in which slips and evasions constitute an intelligible basis for interpretive inference.

“So can anything means anything? Are there no boundaries?” This question crops up all the time. Now, we know two things from the start: First, and this is important, we know full well that anybody can say “X means Y” no matter how daft we may think that assertion. At the same time, second, no assertion about meaning stands on its own; under most circumstances, such assertions carry the unstated subtext “In the semiotic economy of psychoanalysis…” or “Among all speakers of more-or-less standard English…” or “Assuming the speaker knew the word’s usual semantic range…”. Since those qualifying subtexts almost always remain tacit, though, it’s easy for people to mismatch assumed qualifications (“I thought we were talking about our relationship, and she thought we were talking about welfare policy”). Sometimes speakers deliberately operate with asymmetrical assumptions (psychotherapy again, for instance). And sometimes we deliberately interpret statements from one (presumed) semiotic economy in terms of another. But — and this is the key issue — no interpretive mandate can prospectively regulate the interpretations someone offers. (I’ve written about this before, in “Twisting To Destruction”; interpretive rules can function descriptively, but no interpretation was ever precluded because there was a rule against it.) Anything can mean anything to somebody, in some semiotic economy or another; the only boundaries come from our interest in participating in certain discourses, discourses where transgressive interpretive behaviour would be unwelcome.


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Old School Master

Imagine that Yoda were regular height, could speak lucid, straightforward, idiomatic English, was hardly ever seen without his camera, understood the internet the way a farmer understands seed and season, and knew more about broadcast radio than all but a dwindling number of rf-spectrum vets. You’re thinking about Doc Searls.

Doc’s another one of the homesteaders we used to banter with, link to, listen to, and learn from. He’s the one (you may remember) who supplies thousands of Commons-licensed photos to Wikipedia, to print and broadcast media, and to bloggers — especially bloggers who want to illustrate their pages with aerial views of their subjects,

or well-composed topical photos,

or just bunches of internet friends in interesting places.

That’s all just a warm-up, since the Web has grown from rural community with party line phones, general stores, and a stick-together, barn-raising ethos to a hyper-urban celebrity culture. A dozen years ago, you’d have known Doc — but he’s not on Huffington Post or whatever, so you may need an introduction.

A couple of days ago, Doc posted a lovely, thoughtful, un-dramatic reminder about mortality: his, ours, the universe’s, everything. It’s Doc all over — wisdom that’s neither awesome in its unexpected profundity, nor clothed in elementary homespun simplicity, but just true, illustrated from his own photos, informed by his own fascination with geology, and utterly saturated with his love for humanity. Thanks, Doc — you’re a champ.

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Old School

Gather round the YouTube video of a campfire, kiddies, and Grandpa will tell you a story of the days before the Web had coalesced into the shopping mall of franchises and brands that it is today.

In those days, bloggers didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to spread word of their memes, photoshopped images, and even their original ideas. And again, in those days, blogs didn’t have commenting capacity coded in; you could add comments on, or switch platforms to a more advanced blogging app that did support comments, or you could do without comments. Heh, we used to have arguments about whether a blogger was obliged to allow comments or, contrarily, that comments were a bad thing (someone was foreseeing YouTube comments).

If we saw a blog to which we wanted to respond, we wrote about it on our own blogs, and made a link to the other site.

Those days saw lots of workarounds and kludges and brilliant innovations to accomplish things that quite ordinary blogging apps do today (if indeed they’re still possible). Among the people who contributed to that ecosystem of connection and innovation was Kevin Marks. (He also used to blog more often than he does now, but I can’t throw stones about that.) So a week or so ago, Kevin was at a W3C meeting, when he realised that it’s important that a blogger be able to link not just to a page, but to specific words on a page. He devised a way for this to work, and Jonathan Neal wrote a script that, if added to a site, would enable links to specific words on a page — what Kevin calls a “fragmention.” Indeed, Jonathan wrote an extension for Google Chrome to enable fragmentions to workthrough the browser, regardless of internal scripting. And they worked out a refined implementation a few days later.

In the old days, we wrote about one another’s ideas and implementations, kicked the tires (or “tyres”), and responded to each other. Like saying, “Thanks, Kevin — this looks very cool. I’ll poke a round and try it — I hope it catches on.”

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Remembering Aaron

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Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeAs the Sturm und Drang about the (apparently forged) Jesus’ Wife Fragment waxes and wanes (the Sturm waxes, the Drang wanes?), my predictably eccentric interest concerns the role of evidence and of non-evidential factors in shaping positive or negative assessments of the fragment.

Let’s start again by noticing that, even at its very earliest plausible date, its most genuine condition, the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married. If we didn’t think Jesus was married before, we don’t have more reason to think he was; we just have further evidence affirming this particular view (often associated with, or dismissed as, Gnostic). Apart from the ordinary interest that the discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript from early Christianity, this fragment should not generate much excitement in any but the more arcane academic circles — and that’s on the assumption that it’s genuine.

So the furor over the fragment, and the side-taking over its authenticity, require an explanation. If the JWF is not particularly novel, if it may not even be genuine, why did it become controversial? Certain aspects of the fuss can easily be explained: there is money in media coverage, and a television special would certainly line somebody’s pockets. Likewise media attention to the fragment, for which each click and link meant more advertising revenue. And even high-minded scholars like attention; most of the time, most people ignore us, and the glamour of broadcast authority would be difficult to resist for all but the most ascetical among us. (I mean no slight at my colleagues who appear in documentaries or news coverage — those whom I know are all lovely people whom I respect, and for whom I wish only the best, for whose good fortune I congratulate them.) One can dispose of much of the sizzle by ascribing it to cash considerations and publicity — “most”, but not by any means “all.” The role that money and publicity play in the construction of academic controversy and knowledge warrants closer attention, but I’m particularly interested in the residuum.

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

By the same token, plenty of vociferous scholars have the opposite disposition, and we saw some immediate negative responses to the JWF which may well have owed as much to the scholars’ inclination to downplay the genuineness of apparent evidence that early Christians held divergent views about Jesus as they owed to identifiable faults with the evaluation of the fragment.

And some scholars, I should add, contributed substantive evidence to the discussion. The direction of their inquiries may have been affected by their desires to support or debunk the genuineness of the fragment, but evidence resists desire somewhat more effectively than do sentiment and temperament, and the comparisons to other fragments and to other texts (and their provenance, and their conditions of publication) help immensely in reaching a thoughtful conclusion about the JWF.

Over and above the reasonable, inevitable, productive inclinations (“positive prejudices,” as Gadamer called them), though, is there not visible a certain longing-to-[dis]believe, wishing-it-were[n't]-so, that we see more clearly when non-specialists latch on to particular notions regardless of the historical or evidential basis? The attraction of metanarratives such as “the church conceals the truth from you”, or “in the twenty-first century no rational person can believe…”, or “this is the truth unambiguously and definitively handed down changelessly from the first century to now…” resides not in the evidential basis for any of them so much as in the desire that they be so.

We cannot extirpate desire from our interpretive reasoning, not even by dint of determined will. Must we then be silent about our entanglement with desire? When a professed radical interpreter finds Paul to be an anti-imperial subversive, is it disrespectful to note that the exegetical conclusion conveniently fits the interpreter’s wishes? And most difficult of all, what of the interpretive desires of people whose allegiances and principles cannot conveniently be labelled and mapped? And — when any charge of interpretation-by-desire can be answered with a tu quoque (“the same to you”) so that one can’t simply dismiss an interpretation because of its background, how can we construct a discourse in which desire is neither a taboo nor a blank cheque?

One might think that the hermeneutics of desire follow relatively straightforwardly from autobiographical interpretation, but I don’t remember hearing the topic addressed as a matter of methodological or metacritical reflection. If I missed something, please let me know.

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Pervasive Latent Criteria

QuadrigaSumming up from last time: “meant” and “means” aren’t distinct from one another in the way that the standard account presupposes; and, there is no theoretical account to be adduced which will arbitrate how to apply a posited meaning. (This paragraph doesn’t count against me.)

Absent a subsistent “meaning” that provides a polestar for interpretive validity, we reckon the soundness of our interpretive activity by more proximate criteria. A tremendous proportion of interpretive legitimacy is not itself reasoned out, but “caught”, assimilated, from the interpreters whom one regards as authorities. Sometimes they hold authority by force: as in the academy, where students learn positively that “so and so is an admirable interpreter of whom our tutors speak highly, and we should endeavour to emulate his moves” or negatively that “Such and such never even appears on our reading lists; we can regard her work as utterly insignificant” or “Our tutor referred derisively to this book; we’d better not say anything good about it.” Learning interpreters strive to be like their positive models (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Raymond Brown” or “Tom Wright” or “Bart Ehrman”). Even among more advanced interpreters, a tacit sense of “what goes” in academic discourse affects the tenor of interpretive deliberation. We can make some of these criteria explicit, but others remain difficult to articulate (if we can recognise them as criteria at all, so deeply have they been assimilated).

Our interpretive activity does not simply observe the expression-and-apprehension interplay; it is itself an exercise in apprehension (of criteria, of tone, of acceptable conclusions, of audience) and expression (not only “This is my interpretation” but the representation of one’s deliberation as revolutionary or as compliant with extant discourses, as easily intelligible or as arcane, as authenticated by institutional authority or as self-justifying, and so on. The persona of the interpreter plays a role in the interpretation offered (“She explicitly alludes to Christian theological points of reference”, “He cites continental critics whose work I can’t read”, “He’s smartly dressed”, “She’s wearing shredded blue jeans”, “He slouches and mumbles”, “She looks us in the eye, speaks clearly and fluently and confidently”). All of these function willy-nilly, regardless of anyone’s intentions. The speaker/writer may intend to sound intelligent and confident, and a hearer/reader may think of him as pompous; a speaker/writer may intend to sound sensible and humble, and a hearer/reader think she’s not sure of herself and her case is weak. Even the most fair, even-handed, balanced interpreters are — cannot help being — affected by elements of a discourse that are not exhausted by an author’s intended meaning. Interpretive judgments comprise a great deal more than an inferred intent in words with subsistent meaning — and any account of hermeneutics that neglects, or suppresses, or circumvents, or denies the reality and power of these elements in the offering-uptake interaction misses some of the most important aspects of interpretation. And simply saying “Those other factors don’t count, they aren’t legitimate, we only accept the real meanings of words” doesn’t change the realities with which those who express and those who infer are daily dealing.


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Spring Evening Class

Classroom View
Classroom View

It may be difficult to concentrate tonight.

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Meant, Means, Application

QuadrigaFor the purposes of my developing this argument, let’s take my expression-apprehension model of interpretation as read. On this account, now, we can explain a great many problems that the standard “subsistent meaning” account generates. For instance, the standard account gets into great headaches about “the difference between what it meant and what it means today” (Krister Stendahl); on the expression-apprehension model, there is no static “meant” or “means” to diverge. Under particular circumstances two millennia ago, people apprehended a particular expression in several identifiable and explicable ways; today, people apprehend the words of that expression (usually in translation, in this example) in several identifiable and explicable ways, and that’s just what we would expect. Is there an interesting, convincing vector of continuity among these apprehensions? My best answer to that sort of question involves the next paragraph.

A second persistent toothache for the standard account involves the question of how one gets from “meaning” to “application”. It’s all very well, we are told, to develop a technical argument that some biblical passage “means” X, but how do we apply that in the lifeworld? I answer that an argument about a text’s “meaning” that does not already (or imminently) correspond to a manner of living can be correct only in the most narrow of senses. In other words, “application” is not a problem to be solved in theory; ethos is itself a primary commentary on any purported textual application.

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Êthos Anthrôpôi Daimôn, on Flickr


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Images Of The Week

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