Monday, June 24, 2013

Overcoming dualism: textual meaning discovered and invented, first comment

In theory of interpretation competing positions are usually presented as dichotomies.  Either one is an intentionalist or an anti-intentionalist, either a monist or a pluralist, and so forth.  I would like to try to get away from that way of thinking, although it will be obvious that in those traditional debates I definitely lean in a certain direction, for example towards pluralism as opposed to monism.  One distinction is between the idea that the meaning of literary work is discovered (sometimes called "the retrieval view") and the view that it is invented (often called "the imposition" view.)  Here, I am also inclined to try to find a middle path.  One version of a middle path would be to say that some literary meaning is discovered and some is invented.  Or one could say that both discovering meaning and inventing meaning are legitimate activities.  Both of these strategies in my view accept the dichotomy.  So what I would like to suggest is a deconstruction of the distinction itself.  That is, when one engages in literary interpretation one discovers through invention and one invents through discovery.  I believe that creativity is essential to good literary interpretation, but I am unwilling to see creativity as a matter of simply imposing something external onto a literary text.  I am a pluralist in that I believe that there can be equally good interpretations of a literary text that are in fact in deep competition.  Marxist, feminist, Buddhist, and so forth, types of literary interpretation can all be valuable, some more valuable than others depending on the situation.  My position is historicist in a sense that is quite different from that commonly given by authors like Saville.  I believe that true historicism is a recognition that literary works evolve over time, that they grow new possibilities and can be legitimately read in new and interesting ways.  Ronald Dworkin held that interpretation was not a matter of conversation but of construction.  As he put it, "creative interpretation, on the constructive view, is a matter of interaction between purpose and object."  Although I like the emphasis on creativity and construction in Dworkin's thinking, I cannot see how this is opposed to a conversational interest or interest in the origin of the work of art.  As I see it, a good conversation is one that is constructive, that is oriented to action and not just to recovery.  Even more puzzling in Dworkin's analysis is the idea that the imposition of purpose is a matter of making of the work "the best possible example of the form or genre."  One wonders why this should be the goal, or even a goal.  The idea of imposition implies a kind of aggressiveness.  Impositions are generally seen as burdens, obligations, or duties.  So they are seen as negative to the thing imposed upon.  We do not want to be imposed upon.  Interpretation is not best seen as imposition in this sense.  If one takes a good Freudian interpretation of a literary text one is not simply imposing a Freudian framework onto the text, but seeing the text from a Freudian perspective.  And you do it not to make it the best possible form but to make the best possible sense out of it.  Lamarque speaks of this as maximizing interest in the work, which I think is close to is a matter of bringing the work alive. 

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