SALT and Savour

I gave the presentation on Magritte and Krazy Kat at the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians meeting yesterday, and it was a shade of a letdown; the group was attentive and very responsive to the presentation itself, but the preponderance of those who spoke up were pretty firmly committed to the hermeneutical status quo — especially after my presentation, when a panel discussed Lutheran approaches to the use of Scripture in discussions concerning sexuality. Though I didn’t by any means expect that everyone would fall all over themselves to accommodate my points in the talk, many of the pivotal issues in the panelists’ talks fell squarely into the area that I had just devoted ninety minutes to calling into question. Anyway, I’ll post the gist of the lecture in the extended version of this post — in case you’re interested.


René Magritte, Krazy Kat, and Truth in Interpretation


A. K. M. Adam

Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians

San Diego, Nov. 2007


Eventually, most pastoral practitioners will come to the recognition that some conflicts will not yield to direct confrontation. Tackling such problems head-on turns out to embed the crux of the problem more deeply – sometimes under a different guise, sometimes with the poles reversed, but usually without releasing all concerned from the travail of the besetting conflict. I propose that the storm and fury around biblical hermeneutics, particularly in relation to the church’s theology, exemplifies this sort of intractable situation. The terms with which the debate is conducted, the presumed goals toward which it is directed, tend always to reify the conflict more than to resolve it. Claims about the plain sense of the text, the correct method of interpretation, the nature and bounds of historical inquiry persistently bootleg their preferred outcome in with the assumptions they bring to bear.*1* No matter how diligent, how insightful, how erudite or how pious a thesis be, so long as it tackles head-on the question of legitimating a correct interpretation, it seems to please its partisans, discountenance its opponents, and leave the conflict unabated.

Under such circumstances, the most propitious way to alleviate the problem entails approaching it from a very different direction. In this afternoon’s talk, I hope to persuade you of the possibility that we better understand the problems concerning meaning in interpretation by letting go our discourses’ investment in attaining a uniquely correct interpretation, one that justifies our superiority to those with whom we disagree. The idol of a talismanic correctness that, like the Ark of the Covenant, would go forth with us in rhetorical conflict and subdue all dissent has bewitched our imaginations. Instead of this idol, I will offer a way of thinking about interpretation that still involves deliberation about better and sounder interpretations, but without pretensions to decisive interpretive authority. This proposal comes with the drawback that it will not assuage our fiery passion to claim privileged possession of biblical correctness. If I succeed in persuading you, however, my proposal may afford the incalculable advantage of clarifying the bases of our interpretations, and the bases of the relation of our interpretations to our dogmatic conclusions, our ecclesiology and our ethics. With your indulgence, I will lead the way to this proposal by way of Brussels and Paris, then Coconino County, stopping momentarily in Canterbury, glancing to Wittenberg, and finally returning to our conference room in San Diego to expound the consequences of the proposal I here sketch.

My hermeneutical digression begins with the work of René Magritte, Belgian painter whose work – favorite source for record album covers and dormitory posters – is conventionally subsumed under the category of surrealism. For this afternoon’s purposes, I want to concentrate on his language art, and particularly on an essay he published in the 1929 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, entitled “Les mots et les images.”*2* The essay comprises eighteen pen-and-ink sketches with aphoristic captions that explore the convergence and disjunctions of words, images, meaning, and reality. After showing that words and objects bear only a contingent relation to one another (“Un objet ne tient pas tellement à son nom qu’on ne puisse lui trouver un autre qui lui convienne mieux”*3*), Magritte explores the ways that we can substitute an image for a word, a word for an image, and the ways that our habits of thinking associate the properties of physical objects to words and images.The eleventh unit pertains particularly to my argument this afternoon. Magritte shows a line that first forms the letters “a” and “b” in a cursive hand, then forms the profile of a human face, then makes the letters “n” and “o,” then outlines a rectangular solid (drawn in perspective). The caption for that image reads, “Dans un tableau, les mots sont de la même substance que les images.” The letters in a painting or a sketch are lines with the same properties as the lines used to depict physical objects. Nonetheless (in the next panel), Magritte points out that although the lines are the same whether they form letters or images, “On voit autrement les images et les mots dans un tableau.” We perceive words and images differently, but the difference rests not in the depiction but in our reception thereof.

Magritte’s observation invites us to break down the dividing wall of segregation that isolates verbal expression in a special sphere where words bear a privileged relation to meaning. One could reiterate this point by invoking Magritte’s series of images that present captioned images, most of which appear not to correspond to their labels (a briefcase captioned “le ciel,” or a horse’s head labeled “the door”). In several of these images, though, one image bears a label that seems to fit it. The juxtaposition of apparently-unrelated word-image pairs with a pair that appears appropriate (or in the case of The Key of Dreams 1930, even the possibility of an appropriate word-pair match) complicates any apodictic assertions regarding the relation of words, images and meanings. So long as the conventions and assumptions that provide an infrastructure for everyday communication remain undisclosed, we can operate as though meaning subsisted in glyphs and representations; Magritte, however, brings the infrastructure of meaning to the foreground, and makes the infrastructure the subject.

By calling attention to the occluded underpinnings of ordinary discourse, Magritte offers his audience an occasion to recognize that the topic of relations among words, images, and meanings doesn’t fit the neat, convenient patterns that everyday discourse presupposes. Meanings are not somewhere in there, in sounds or letters or images, waiting for us to release the intrinsic meaning into our attentive thoughts. In the economy of signification, the conventions and assumptions we bring to bear do the work of venturing and apprehending meaning. Magritte’s essays and paintings do not prove something about meaning; they don’t, as he often insisted, mean something themselves. Rather, they destabilize the conventions and assumptions that ordinarily mystify our verbal discourse, and in so doing they afford one fulcrum for extricating ourselves from the intractable problems that ensue when we invest in the myth of subsistent meaning.

Having placed one of my points d’appui in Brussels, permit me to whisk us to Coconino County, Arizona, the presumed setting for George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics. Krazy Kat shares certain affinities for surrealism with Magritte, but whereas Magritte prescribes harsh semiotic therapy, Herriman treats the problem of meaning more whimsically. Krazy Kat flourished in the Hearst newspaper chain from about 1916 to the mid-thirties.*4* The premise of most of the strips is the same: Krazy Kat loves Ignatz Mouse, who rebuffs Krazy’s affection with a thrown brick, while the canine policeman Officer Bull Pupp – who himself loves Krazy Kat – endeavors to protect Krazy by putting Ignatz into jail. But that basic thematic structure provides the occasion for variations that address the endless inflections of human understanding and misunderstanding. Indeed, Herriman makes communication and its miscarriage focal topics of the strip. Sometimes his characters change the frame of reference (“breaking frame”) to call attention to their embeddedness in the comic-strip world.*5* Krazy’s peculiar dialect signals and generates confusion in communication as well; in one noteworthy strip, Krazy asks Ignatz, “Why is lenguage?” to which Ignatz answers, “Language is that we may understand one another.” Krazy persists: “Can you unda-stend a Finn or a Leplender or a Oshkosher, huh?” Ignatz concedes that he can’t, to which Krazy Kat submits that “I would say, lenguage is, that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”*6*In a comic strip that thematizes confusion and amibiguity, the topic of Krazy’s gender and sexuality stands out as particular puzzle. Herriman treated this fraught topic quite cavalierly:

I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl – even drew up some strips with her being pregnant. It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much concerned with her own problems – like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a sprite – a pixie – free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?*7*

Well, maybe, maybe not. Although Herriman asserted that Krazy was neither he nor she, the characters in the strips interpellate Krazy exclusively as a “he.” Indeed, numerous strips depend for their humor on the premise that Krazy is male.*8* Krazy admits to Ignatz that “I don’t know whether to take unto myself a wife or a husband” (October, 1915). On the other hand, Krazy devotes him-?-self single-heartedly to love of Ignatz (who remains unambiguously, heterosexually married to Mrs. Mouse,and whose is fascinated with Krazy, but solely as a target for his bricks). In one sequence, Krazy compares himself to the female character in a romance; “the print of his first kiss was on her brow,” but all Ignatz gives Kray Kat’s brow is a brick. Krazy campaigns for women’s suffrage (April 25, 1920) and describes his fur as a “nigli-jee” (April 3, 1919). In a Sunday full-page sequence, Krazy goes to a beauty parlor, which the caption identifies as “a temple of ‘henna,’ ” which will be found “where there be women” (July 14, 1918). In this unit, Krazy reckons s/he’ll “look like the Kwin of Shibba” when s/he comes out (but note that the outraged Ignatz – who dares not follow Krazy in – mutters “Wait till he comes out!” (my emphasis)). Ignatz sees a “beautiful blonde” cat leave the parlor and propositions her, only to learn that the blonde is the made-over Krazy Kat. Although the world recognizes Krazy as a male cat, Krazy Kat enacts an identity as Ignatz’s would-be wife, beautiful as the Queen of Sheba.Though Krazy Kat’s gender might be indeterminate, his race is unambiguously clear: he is black. Indeed, Herriman makes Krazy’s coloration a point of emphasis in numerous panels. Krazy bemoans his “dark complexion,”*9* and has an Uncle Tom who picks cotton.*10* When Ignatz denounces Krazy’s “kinky tail,” Krazy rebuts that “I just had it marcelled.”*11* Numerous panels call attention to Krazy’s blackness, his tropical ancestry (descended from Kleopatra Kat),*12* and his marginal standing in the society of Coconino County.*13* Though several Coconinonians speak with accents (notably Mock Duck, the Chinese cleaner), Krazy Kat’s idiosyncratic dialect sets him apart from the central characters, who all speak in standard English.*14* Krazy’s blackness comes to the fore especially in a number of sequences which transform him to whiteness. Whereas Ignatz repulses the black Krazy Kat, he is fascinated by the white Kat. In the beauty parlor sequence, Ignatz propositions the “beautiful blonde” Kat, “Would’st dip thy beak in a beaker of sassprilla with me, ‘Snow Maiden.’ . . ?” In another strip, Krazy walks under a falling pail of whitewash; when he goes to bathe at the river, he passes Ignatz who has been musing, “Gosh, I wish a beautiful nymph would come along and take a bath now, while I’m here. . . And sure enough, here comes one now – white as a lily and pure as the driven snow.”*15* What Ignatz attacks in black, he likes in white.

The pathos of black Krazy’s unrequited eros for white Ignatz takes on heightened resonance because George Herriman, the artist who wrote Krazy Kat’s comics, lived a racial identity as ambiguous as Krazy Kat’s gender. While Herriman’s death certificate labels him a Caucasian, his birth certificate identified him as “colored.” Herriman’s coworkers noticed his odd habit of never removing his hat, ostensibly to conceal his close-cropped kinky black hair; one of them observes, “We didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek, and he still goes by that name.”*16* Herriman described himself as “a funny looking monkey.”*17* Though the full ramifications of these facts are open to endless debate, Herriman evidently lived in a state of liminality, a colored man passing as white at a time when U.S. culture was investing more intensely in racial distinction enforced by oppression and violence.I introduce Herriman’s personal characteristics not to reduce the complexities of Krazy Kat to the simplicity of a roman-à-clef autobiography. Rather, Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics exemplify the intricacies that beset any efforts to draw simple correlations between expression and meaning. The lived example of George Herriman, by all accounts a gentle, generous, amicable, almost saintly man, reminds us that the theoretical perplexities of hermeneutics come to practical resolution in the conduct of everyday life, where our expressions always entail the risk of miscarrying. While the strips’ persistent emphases on the stresses between white and black, the violence with which white repulses black, the experience of sensing oneself to be different from what one’s interlocutors assume, all pertain in various ways to Herriman’s own life, no convenient hermeneutical key unlocks straight-line correspondences among them. Krazy Kat isn’t simply an amusing taradiddle, but neither is it an allegory for African-American (or biracial or homoerotic) victimization. The lenguage of Krazy Kat is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda, punctuated emphatically with the impact of a brick. *18*

If I take Magritte and Herriman together as points d’appui, we may have sufficient leverage to dislodge for a short while the imaginative predominance of the hermeneutics of subsistent meaning.*19* Most of our discourses take for granted the premise that we communicate by infusing “meaning” into some expression, then throwing that meaning-laden word toward others, whose job it is to extract the meaning from what we wrote or said. (I’ve also referred to this as “bubble” hermeneutics, wherein we blow meaning into a bubble that floats toward an interlocutor’s ear then bursts, emitting the “meaning-content” for a listener’s edification. I like the sound of “bubblical hermeneutics,” but this is a paper about Krazy Kat, so “brick” it will be.) This paradigm persists partly because its schematic representation of how we communicate accords with particular aspects of our experience, and largely because of cognitive inertia: we have accustomed ourselves to thinking in terms of the brick hermeneutics of subsistent meaning, so that familiarity breeds content. Alternative schemas tend to seem improbable from the start; this, I take it, touches on Wittgenstein’s point when he proposed that “a picture held us captive.”*20* If the picture of a meaning-laden brick bewitches our interpretive imagination, perhaps the images with which René Magritte and George Herriman address us may help recover from our captivity, and begin to imagine another schema that better accounts for a fuller range of interpretive phenomena.In considering an alternative to brick hermeneutics, I want to take up some provocations from the work of Magritte and Herriman. First, I suggest that we treat words not as the archetype of normal communication, but as an exceptional case of the more general phenomenon of meaning and interpretation. Second, 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. Third, I suggest that we attend to the ways that our interpretive discourses draw on and reinscribe some imaginative possibilities and proscribe others.The interpretive schema I’m calling “brick hermeneutics” serves particular ends particularly well: the practice of zero-sum polemics and politics, the ideal of a universally ultimately correct interpretation, the economy of endlessly evolutionary newer, improved, up-to-date scholarship and the perceived necessity that somebody must control interpretation. Since the institutions we inhabit tend to accept and uphold these ends, the implicit discourse of daily life in the theological academy tends to inculcate the sense that these are obvious and natural, perhaps even necessary. Yet the interventions of Magritte and Herriman (and one might add Wittgenstein, Derrida, information theorists, and several generations of semioticians) call to our attention some strong reasons for disinvesting from brick hermeneutics.Brick hermeneutics, after all, don’t work that well even for the full range of ordinary expression. Brick hermeneutics work best for simple declarative propositions: “George W. Bush is the forty-third President of the United States.” We can imagine the brick that we’re throwing when we say that. But once we stray from simple declarative statements – or paradigmatic instances of other sorts of speech-acts – brick hermeneutics doesn’t do nearly as well. This, I suspect, helps explain why W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley began to question what they named “the intentional fallacy” with reference to the field of literature*21*; what sort of brick are we throwing if we say, “In me thou see’st the twilight of such day / As after sunset fadeth in the west”? (Side note: I frequently evoke bemused mirth when I say that my hermeneutical consciousness was richly formed by the experience of listening to rock’n’roll – that is, I knew in my heart and my gut that those songs meant more than what a stoned semi-tonal two-chord clanger could possibly have intended. People laugh, but I’m serious. And right.) Brick hermeneutics doesn’t operate as well for narrative, either, where how one says something (or “what one doesn’t say”) matters as much as the “content” of what one says.

Brick hermeneutics – and its modern enabling technology, speech-act theory – work admirably well as long as people and language cooperate with the rules that the theorists set out. But (a) we still need to account satisfactorily for non-verbal expression such as tonal, graphical, musical, gustatory, or gestural communication; and (b) even within the sphere of austerely verbal communication, communicators and interpreters are notoriously unruly in their expression and apprehension of meaning. The wisest interpretation doesn’t come most readily in the context of forced electoral choices (pace the Jesus Seminar); no one has yet arrived at an adequate account of what would constitute a universal hermeneutic, nor will anyone; more recent interpretations aren’t necessarily better simply by virtue of their novelty; and nobody can control interpretation. In short, the force with which brick hermeneutics possesses our imaginations obscures its very many shortcomings as an analysis of meaning.

Moreover, brick hermeneutics entail pernicious side effects, which you as teachers and preachers are liable to run into. If we quietly accept the premise that expressers infuse their compositions with subsistent meaning, then we’re issuing a mediocrity license to careless writers and speakers. A student is liable to protest, “But I meant X Y Z” when a teacher marks down a paper for an ambiguous, awkward, malformed essay; a preacher who utters all sorts of theological nonsense can clear the slate by saying, “But that’s not what I meant.” Hey, the subsistent meaning is in there – it’s one’s responsibility as a teacher, as a sermon-listener, to excavate it in accordance with the authorial intention, right?*22* Brick hermeneutics encourages sloppy writers to suppose that the most generous construal of their work (that is, their own) rests firmly on a subsistent meaning with which they’ve imbued their expression, thus underwriting a culture of indifference in composition.

But, taking a cue from Magritte and Krazy Kat, we can begin to recuperate from the undesirable effects of brick hermeneutics by acknowledging that words are not the definitive example of meaning. Indeed, words constitute a peculiarly specific subset of the more general phenomenon of meaning. Light outside our bedroom window means morning, a dress suit means professional, a smile means happy, green means go, and so on ad inifinitum (Latin means “sophisticated”). None of these instances abuses the syntax of meaning, nor does any lend itself to the hermeneutics of subsistent meaning. There’s no “morningness” in sunlight, no professionalism in the suit, no happiness in the smile, no locomotion in the traffic signal – there’s no meaning in the painting, as Magritte would insist. Meaning is always ascribed, whether in anticipation (as a communicator) or in a moment (as an interpreter). Thus when we perceive light outside the window, we ascribe to it the meaning that morning has come (even though the light may come from klieg lights for the movie they’re filming outside your window), and so on. The meaning isn’t in the expression or the apprehension, but – if anywhere – in their functional convergence.*23*

Instead of treating meaning as subsistent, as a thrown brick, we would do better to look at meaning as the result of a complex pattern of expression and apprehension, as a venture, a gamble.*24* If I want my wife to pick up some green peppers at Wegman’s, I’ll print the words “green peppers” on a discarded envelope and hand it to her with the explanation that it’s the beginning of a grocery list. This is a very, very low-risk gamble (though it’s not free from risk; the ink may blur, the envelope get lost, or we may already have agreed that only my daughter and I do the grocery shopping). If on the other hand, my wife wants me to buy some green peppers at Wegman’s, she will carve a squiggle onto a discarded envelope – it’s a risky communicative gesture, even if the ink is intact, the envelope in hand, and Pippa and I are doing our household duty by shopping for produce. The words are the same (I think), but the precariousness of communication enters in ways that brick hermeneutics can’t account for.

As brick hermeneutics affords a protected zone for compositional mediocrity, so this Coconinonian Herrimaneutics of expression and apprehension holds everyone involved responsible for their part in attaining understanding. Each of us has to stand accountable for her or his choice of expression (can’t just shrug it off as “lern 2 take a joke” or “that’s not what I meant”), for our style of expression, for the all the various gestures by which we broadcast who we are and what we’re about. And by the same token, we’re responsible as detecters of meaning for the ways in which we construe the clues around us. That responsibility is not circumscribed, though, by the methods and laws that govern the historical-critical method (without conceding that there even is such a method in a singular sense) or speech-act theory or whatever. Rather, we are constrained by the interwoven patterns of expectation and satisfaction, of confusion and frustration that constitute the (flexible but extremely durable) semiotic infrastructure of our common lives, the “forms of life” that shape our expectations about meaning. I’ve suggested elsewhere that we should enrich our discussion about meaning by changing the way we imagine our interpretive and expressive gestures: instead of perpetuating the containerized metaphors of brick hermeneutics’s subsistent meaning, we ought to pursue deliberate articulations of signifying practices.*25* We have no reason, I suspect, to assume that the signifying practices of Anglican and Lutheran (or emergent and established, or White and Black) theologies should arrive at identical interpretations. The coexistence of divergent interpretive claims, the pattern of shared elements in their ancestry and the distinctive elements that set them at odds, provide the mutual support and irritation that keep recalling us to reexamine and reassert (and possibly critically to reassess) the signifying practices from within which we propose interpretations.

What, then, about truth in interpretation? First, and most fundamentally, the analysis I suggest here more truly represents what people do in communicating. Instead of relying on a metaphorically containerized “meaning,” whose metaphorical characteristics generate at least as many conundrums as they clear up (and I’d venture to submit that the proportion of costs and benefits tilts even more starkly toward “costs”) — instead of investing in a problematic metaphor, this hermeneutics of offering and response beings from what speakers, writers, composers, designers, performers, and listeners, readers, and viewers do with one another.

Second, I urge that we let go all interpretive regimens whose appeal rests in their issuing in some imperious compulsory finality in interpretation – the brick with which to crease the skulls of recalcitrant interpreters.*26* A true account of interpretive truth must take into account the misconnection of expression and apprehension, and the likelihood (that approaches certainty) that today’s assured results will be relativized (at best) or rejected outright tomorrow, until they are perhaps retrieved, in an unanticipated way, by some future generation. A theory won’t protect your significations from miscarrying, from destinerrance; you especially won’t be able to understand and deal with misapprehension constitutes an abjected externality to your account of interpretation. In order to learn more richly, more wisely, more truly to interpret texts (and paintings and gestures and sounds), we need to give up the determination to control interpretation. We can still adjudicate better and worse, more and less plausible, (provisionally) right and (apparently) wrong, without the unsupportable superstructure that subsistent meaning requires.Instead, we can take more seriously the biblical injunctions about walking in truth (Ps 86:11, 2 Jn 4, 3 Jn 3f*27*) and doing the truth (Jn 3:21, 1 Jn 1:6), so that we construe “truth” not as a (brick) subsistent content, but as the telos of a signifying practice: “Walk in such a way as to expound the truth by your very life”*28* – or as Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Interpretive truth thus functions not as a methodological criterion that ensures correct hermeneutical ethics, but as a characterization of how life ought to look. Truth, on such an account, offers itself to us not as something to be used, but as a characteristic of divine life by which, toward which, in which we should order our way. Rather, we should always be ready to make a defense*29* to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15) so that others may know the certainty concerning the things about which we instruct them (Lk 1:4).

Moreover, this account of interpretation dissolves some of the tension concerning the alleged “plain sense” of Scripture, a sense that attains heightened importance in theological discourse precisely when it’s in dispute – when it is, in other words, not so plain. Our appeals to the “plain sense” function only within a body where we already agree about what the plain sense might be. If you and I arrive at divergent interpretations of Scripture, however, one of us won’t persuade the other by saying “My interpretation is plainer than yours.” If to the contrary it’s important that one be able to compel others to abide by what you or I think the plain sense should be, we are no longer talking about hermeneutics, but about the politics of coercion. Instead of appealing to an allegedly plain sense of Scripture to compel our interlocutors to concede to us, we do better to make the interpretations we espouse seem “plain” to others – conducting our lives on the basis of those interpretations, upholding them consistently (even to our disadvantage) and showing the ways they contribute to the truth of our discipleship.

My proposed Herrimaneutics fits especially well, I dare say, in an Anglican context. I’m not going to try to set out the Anglican approach to Scripture, or even an Anglican approach – rather, I hope that my proposal here sketches a characteristically pliant-but-durable approach. After all, the establishment of the Church of England has required the salutary urgency of keeping everybody in the church if at all possible, requiring expansiveness and caution in theology. Likewise, the Anglican formularies and divines have typically emphasized the corrigibility of mortal reasoning, and the plenitude of the fruits of interpretive diligence.

For let us not think that as long as the world doth endure the wit of man shall be able to sound the bottom of that which may be concluded out of the Scripture; especially if “things contained by collection” do so far extend as to draw in whatsoever may be at any time out of Scripture but probably and conjecturally surmised.*30*

[Scripture] cannot as it were be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.*31* 

While I do not know enough about Lutheran hermeneutics to speak more than hesitantly, I would suppose this concordant with the chastened hermeneutics of a theologia crucis; but on this aspect of the project I await instruction from my colleagues.

To conclude this afternoon’s digressions, I want to cite Douglas Wolk’s review of a recent republication of Krazy Kat comics. Wolk praises the book for a variety of excellences, and concludes the notice by observing “the brick is a brilliant symbol of the idea that a message can be understood entirely differently by its sender and recipient.”*32* In the last sequence in the handout, when Krazy infuriates Ignatz by cooking with an empty pot on a stove without a fire, Ignatz launches the obligatory projectile at him. This time, however, he assures Krazy that “there’s nothing in this brick.” With almost Derridean aplomb, Krazy Kat answers, “A sort of ‘brickliss brick,’ I take it.” That, I think, sums up my post-literal Herrimaneutics admirably: as we come to terms with meaning without subsistence, the brick in our hermeneutics resolves into lines on a page, a brickliss hermeneutic of offering and response, expression and apprehension. Such an approach to the convergence of theological deliberation and Scriptural interpretation best afford a discourse through which we can discern the truth of varying interpretation, and do the truth, so that our works may be seen to have been done in God.


+ + + + + + + + + + + + +

*1* Jean-François Lyotard identifies a category of problems in which no criterion of discernment avails that does not already encode one of the rival positions as warranted; he calls these problems différends, and notes that they differ from the sort of conflict in which the contending parties share a discursive frame for defining the problem. In a différend, “the ‘regulation’ of the conflict. . . is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the injustice suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom.” Lyotard, “The Différend, the Referent, and the Proper Name,” trans. Georges van den Abbeele. diacritics 14 (1984), 5.

*2* La Révolution Surréaliste 5/12 (December 15, 1929), 32-33. Magritte affirms the enduring relevance of this essay when, eight years after first publishing it, he reiterates many of its aphorisms in a slide lecture given at Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London (1937) (Magritte: The True Art of Painting, 67). I am charmed that Magritte carefully pens in the pronunciations of difficult English words: “dis is de skaie.”

*3* “Le Mots et Les Images,” 32.

*4* Never a strictly popular feature, Krazy Kat was sustained mostly by critical appreciation and by William Randolph Hearst’s insistence that the comic run in his papers. According to Patrick McDonnell et al., “[b]y 1944 Krazy Kat could be found in only thirty-five papers” (Krazy Kat, 82).

*5* In the strip of Dec. 25, 1918, Krazy marvels at the exotic locations in which he and Ignatz appear (on the moon, on the ocean, in a balloon), but Ignatz denies that they’re any of those places – “We’ve been in the paper all the time, silly.” McDonnell, 63. Herriman shows a special interest in exploring devices that break frame, by shifting into faux-Chinese, by manipulating the picture plane, by addressing the cartoonist from within the strip, by calling attention to the ink that constitutes the comic’s world, and so on.

*6* January 6, 1918; McDonnell, 61.

*7* Quoted in McDonnell et al., 54.

*8* The example shown here – downloaded from Coconino World, dating from 1919 – shows a bouncer addressing Krazy and Ignatz both as “gents,” and the two compliantly putting on clothing (ties) to enter the party. Since everyone other than Krazy addresses the Kat as a male, I will provisionally do so also.

*9* Coconino World, 150. Krazy is proud, however, that Herriman spends more on ink for him than for Ignatz (Coconino World, 95).

*10* Amiran, p. 63.

*11* Coconino World, 24).

*12* May 4, 1919; reproduced in McDonnell, 29.

*13* Sometimes the citizens seem to respect and sympathize with Krazy; other times, as in the Sunday sequence of May 5, 1918, “ ‘Krazy Kat’ and ‘Kristopher Katerpillar,’ a worm, both hardly considered ‘personages’ are necessarily not among those present” at an elegant social function.

*14* At the same time, Krazy shows a capacity for high-flown formal diction that resonates with the locution of subaltern speakers who have been instructed in dominant-culture diction.

*15* October 16, 1921; Amiran, 73.

*16* Tad Dorgan, “This Is About George Herriman,” reprinted in McDonnell, 40.

*17* Cited in McDonnell, 25.

*18* January 6, 1918; McDonnell, 61.

*19* I discuss the myth of subsistent meaning in the Introduction to Faithful Interpretation, especially 3-5.*20* Philosophical Investigations §115 (Wittgenstein’s emphasis).

*21* W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon (University Press of Kentucky, 1954) 3-18.

*22* I suspect – though time does not avail for me to work out the possibility – that brick hermeneutics also plays into problems of theodicy. That is, we treat events as though they were brick/words, which had to have subsistent meaning in themselves; then we wrestle with God over how God could permit such evil event/bricks into the fabric of our lives. On Cononinonian terms (and I apologize for introducing such levity into so grave a topic), the “meaning” of Katrina can’t be isolated from the human activity that made so vast a number of people vulnerable to catastrophe, and that systemically neglected the urgency of alleviating their misery. Metaphorically, “Katrina” is a word in the story told by God, not an increment of intrinsic evil that God drops into an Edenic sentence. But that’s just a passing notion, subject to correction or abandonment when I have time to think it out.

*23* I take it that this pragmatic approach accounts for what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as an “antitheoretical bias” in my proposal, though I would stipulate that the principal theory I’m biased against is Kevin’s.

*24* In other words, while some theological voices have appropriately suggested attending to the “rules” part of Wittgenstein’s language-games, I’m suggesting that we pay due attention to the play part.

*25* “Poaching on Zion,” Reading Scripture with the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 17-34, and “Signifying Theology,” Faithful Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006) 155-163.

*26* In Jean-François Lyotard’s harsh accusation, “To arrest the meanings of words once and for all, that is what Terror wants.” Rudiments Païens; in Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 165.

*27* Cf. also usages concerning “walking in light,” where “light” functions as a complementary condition of truth; likewise other qualifying modifiers of the exhortation to “walk. . . .”

*28* This invokes, but does not develop, the points I suggested in “Walk This Way,” Faithful Interpretation, 105-123.

*29* The rhetorical tenor of the instruction here bears weight toward my thesis.

*30* Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 1.14. The works of that learned and judicious divine, Mr. Richard Hooker : with an account of his life and death, vol. 1, ed. John Keble (Oxford: A the University Press, 1845). 269.

*31* John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, ed. 1845 (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1974) 162 (2.1.6).

*32* Douglas Wolk, “Mouse tales, some dirty business, Troy redux and pictures from an institution,” Washington Post July 18, 2004 (BW08).

5 thoughts on “SALT and Savour

  1. Wow. Terrific paper, imho. Most of my work lately has been in the area of teaching English language learners and evaluating learners taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), so ambiguous and misleading and otherwise generally poor use of language has been more in my mind than in most people’s.

    I’d say more, but I’m supposed to be working right now. I was thinking while reading, though, that Jerry Seinfeld’s film “Comedian” would be an interesting example of a particular type of “meaning”, i.e. humor, and the attendant difficulties of someone trying to get that meaning across.

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