Since it cost too much to have a projector for the Society of Anglican and Luthern Theologians (they charge academic theologians the same rates they charge corporations — go figure!), I made handouts of selected images from Magritte and Krazy Kat to illustrate my talk for Friday. Margaret prompted me to provide an outline of take-away points to accompany the images. Rather than paste in the whole durn lecture, I’m posting the emphasis points here.
The proposition: Renounce hermeneutics that posit subsistent meaning as a check on wayward interpretation; adopt a hermeneutic that accepts semiotic abundance.
￼ René Magritte’s sketches and language paintings undermine the facile assumption that words constitute a privileged domain of subsistent meaning. These works defy conventional premises about how words and images effect meaning.
￼ George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics similarly play against conventions about meaning and identity – all the more pognantly when we read them in the context of Herriman’s own life and cultural context. The brick ￼ figures as a pivotal element in the discourse. Ignatz means the brick as an effectual expression of his fathomless aversion to Krazy; Krazy construes the brick as a token of love.
￼ Hence, I suggest that we treat words not as the archetype of normal communication, but as an exceptional case of the utterly general phenomena of meaning and interpretation. Everything signifies. We ascribe meaning; meaning does not subsist.
￼ Hence, I suggest that we move from a schema that presupposes a determinate “meaning” that constitutes a discernible property, toward a schema that operates more openly on the terrain of semiotic uncertainty. Think of meaning as a venture, as a gamble; granted the possibility that you may be misunderstood, what can you do to minimize that chance? What stakes ride on your expression?
￼ Hence, granted that everything signifies, we are caught up in interpretive conflicts and divergent signifying practices all the time. Interpretation is not simply words about words, but it encompasses the lived identities by which we express what matters most to us (and what we don’t care that much about).
￼ Biblical injunctions to “walk in truth,” “do the truth,” capture this admirably.
￼ This interpretive mode befits Anglican (and Lutheran?) theology better than does the dominant convention of supposing the existence of subsistent meaning as a check on interpretation. We cannot use the [alleged] truth of a “plain meaning” against our interlocutors; rather, we exemplify the truth so as to make meaning plain to them.
I don’t talk much about signifying practices in the lecture, which is a weakness in a way, since the argument concerning meaning and embodiment relies on the concept of signifying practices for its support, but I only have forty minutes or so to talk. In a more nearly perfect world, the other theologians would be richly versed in what I’ve written on this topic, but I doubt I can count on that in this case.
Now I need to refresh my recollection of Paul Ricoeur, since a respondent to the Reading Scripture book has asked the authors to describe their projects with relation to Karl Barth and Ricoeur. It’s a good question, but my memory’s a bit hazy.