Hermeneutics Follow-Up

I actually started writing this response while sitting at the airport in Indianapolis, prospecting for a wifi signal (found one, but it wasn’t open). So at that point I couldn’t respond to comments from Juliet on the hermeneutics article, nor can I call back the specifics of the Tutor’s challenge to connect my advocacy of differential hermeneutics to his urgent question, “What shall I do to be saved?” (I want to check that article he cites on donor-centered philanthropy, too, as I have corresponded with Phil Cubeta and have a certain respect for him.) What I opted to do was blog back to email messages from my generous correspondents, as follows, and now that I’m home I hope to finish up the blog with my responses to Juliet and the Tutor.

To start with, friend Tom Matrullo (in an email, now posted in extenso here) suggests that I move ‘quickly’ to the assumption that texts are unintelligible, from which he identifies two contrasting sets of failures endemic to the two currents of interpretation I described: ‘endless failures to agree on a meaning, or endless efforts to elucidate individual interpreters’ errors.’

First response, then: I don’t assume texts are ‘unintelligible,’ but that they aren’t finally intelligible. That is, I don’t think that we ever come to the end of interpretation. That seems unsatisfactory, so far as I can tell, only if we suppose at the outset that there must be an end to interpretation to which we could come. I don’t share that assumption — at least, I don’t assume that interpretation comes to an end under the sublunary conditions of mortal life. In my experience, people don’t so much come to the end of interpretation, as they come to the end of their patience for interpreting. At that point, they satisfy themselves that their own interpretation, or the interpretation their favorite teacher propounded, or the interpretation that the Bishop of Rome mandated, or the interpretation upheld by most of the interpreters they respect, some chosen bulwark marks the end of the interpretations for which they will sit still.

All of these are more-or-less sensible grounds for winding down one’s interpretive process; one has to stop somewhere, and each of these criteria can with some seriousness claim finality. The question then becomes, “To which criterion do you adhere?” and here again we meet with differential responses.

If I don’t begin by positing a unitary meaning to the text, I needn’t believe that every interpreter errs.

He then picks up my suggestion that the most pertinent “unity” resides in the Body of Christ, within which we may see differentiation as well as integrity. Tom asks whether he understands me to affirm that the “unity” to interpretation lies in the practice of the interpreters (yes, so far) and thus

one turns to interpret the Church, or the community of interpreters, in hopes of gaining some sense of the complexity, tension, dissonance, alterity, inscrutability which might be attributable to the text, since those attributes appear to reasonably describe the evidently un-unified community — the very “meaning” unleashed by the text.
That is to say, the Church as metaphor of the meaning of the text becomes its own subject, and in seeking to read itself, is subject to the aporia between integral and differential hermeneutics. The practice of the community is the hermeneutic pursuit of the meaning of the text, but that meaning, it turns out, is the various incompatible practices of its reading.
This seems a conundrum.

Indeed it does, and it’s a beautiful, subtle point. I would try to disspell the conundrum by resisting the phrase “Church as metaphor of the meaning of the text” (because I don’t assume that there is a meaning in texts) and the phrase “attributable to the text,” (because I don’t ascribe those qualities to the text). Were I to begin ascribing qualities of “complexity, tension, dissonance, alterity, inscrutability” to the text itself (in any but a conventional, colloquial sense) I’d have tilted the table in the direction of integral hermeneutics.

Where Tom suggests that the Church provides a metaphor for the meaning of a the text, I would propose that the Church provides a metaphor for the text. Both are underdetermined as to their identity, but both stand for a fictive unity (whose posited unity begins to dissolve when examined closely). Any given account of the unity of the text/Church will persuade some, but not all, of the concerned parties—and that mixed success itself testifies to the weakness of the proposed unity.

Just who is included in the unity of the Church (Mormons? Unitarians? Catholics? even Episcopalians?)? Who do we trust to decide?

Just what counts as the unity of the text (An unseen but implicit authorial intention? The text itself, apart from an alleged intention, as the American New Critics taught?)? Who do we trust to decide?

One of my concerns relative to integral hermeneutics concerns figuring out who gets to tell me the meaning of the text, and whom they banish from legitimate understanding of the text. As I asked in my initial foray, how do I know which prominent authority to rely on?

I’ll continue this topic next blog, but I want to wrap this one up for now.

DRMA: “New Man In Town,” Mighty Sam McClain; “Gospel Medley,” Destiny’s Child (see, Halley, I was listening); “Armando’s Rhumba,” Chick Corea/Jean-Luc Ponty; “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him,” Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir; “I Ain’t Got You,” the Yardbirds; “Christ for President,” Wilco; “Alabama Getaway,” Grateful Dead; “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three,” Big Bad Voodoo Daddy; “Waiting on my Wings,” The Word; “Fool in the Rain,” Led Zeppelin; “Party Out of Bounds,” the B-52s; “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” Muddy Waters; “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Mighty Sam McClain. (By the way, I bought the Allman Brothers’ “Beginnings” CD, a replacement of my vinyl copy, this afternoon after remembering from some MP3 downloads how strong both those first two albums were.)

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