Jeph Jacques Hermeneutician

Jeph Jacques — a terrific comics writer/artist, one-man band, and thoughtful person — has once again run into the uncanny valley of unintended consequences, where what you write (draw, sing, sculpt, design, whatever) engenders responses wildly different from what you expected. Actually, to be more precise, this time he has caught himself at the edge of that valley and changed direction. This time, a space station’s AI system harassed one of the staff (bear with us on this, it’s coherent with the rest of the comic; here’s the original offense) and offered her roughly $5 million as restitution.

But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I got with that idea. Station’s offer of the shares was made entirely with good intentions on his part, but Potter accepting them might send the wrong message. That you can simply buy your way out of trouble if you’ve got the means, or that money is an acceptable substitute for contrition.

His change of direction may have been prompted, to some extent, by his experience on which I commented two years ago, when a polyamorous character expressed a moment of wistfulness about the [then] stable relationship between two other characters. Then, Jeph’s polyamorous readers lit into him for implying that polyamory wasn’t an ultimately fulfilling way of life, which — as Jeph notes — he had neither intended nor even said. (By the way, I’m once again not tackling the moral-theological problems here, just the hermeneutics of expression and intention.)

So this time, Jeph stopped before he wrote himself into the situation of appearing to support the notion that a sumptuous payoff was adequate recompense for harassment. And in his Tumblr blog, he wrote

You as an author have control over the intent of your work, but you do not have control over how other people will interpret it. And if someone’s interpretation of your work differs from your intent, while you can defend your intent, it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid.

Jeph’s so on target here that I want to applaud him digitally (isn’t all applause ‘digital’, in the sense that you do it with your fingers?) — he doesn’t shift blame onto his readers, and he offers only qualified self-justification. And yet, there’s still something missing. The notion of control obtrudes awkwardly here at both ends of the communicative interaction. I’m not convinced that writers (artists, et al., or even anyone at all) actually do have control over their intentions; isn’t that part of what psychology and related sciences remind us? We do stuff; we intend stuff; but only relatively rarely do we formulate a coherent intention and deliberately, critically implement it in a careful way. Jeph’s actions relative to this strip are the exception, rather than the rule. By the same token, it’s more than a little odd to think that someone might control someone else’s interpretation. When has this ever happened?
We’ve developed and propagated a way of thinking about interpretation that fosters the illusory notion that ‘control’ is even a relevant consideration. Rather than beginning with our observable, universal, demonstrable lack of control as a datum, hermeneutics has begun by taking the instances of satisfactory communication and supposed that they constitute a norm that provides a warrant, an intrinsic ethical criterion, by which to evaluate interpretations. And since we can’t control our intentions in the first place, and since a hermeneutics of success ignores the significance of countervailing evidence, the discourse of hermeneutics continues to generate anomalies and puzzles about ‘misinterpretation’ and ‘validity’ (‘it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid’). No: start with lack of control and unsatisfactory communication, account for them, and then work toward how we manage so often to get communication more or less right.
Jeph is a terrific comics artist (‘comicist’?) and a mensch; he’s thoughtful, alert, and willing to face criticism, and he’s way more on top of this pivotal hermeneutical issue than the vast preponderance of we biblical scholars are.

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