Monday, October 8, 2012

On "The Constructivist's Dilemma" by Robert Stecker Part 1

"By a constructivist, I mean someone who holds the view that artworks are constructed not merely by the artists, but also by other people who interpret these objects."  On this view it is unlikely that I would want to be a constructivist.  Artists make artworks usually by putting things together, and always by doing something (for example by displaying a urinal on its side in an art gallery with R. Mutt signed in black ink.)  Interpreters either create understandings of artworks in their minds (which itself is a kind of making, but not really part of making the artwork in question) or they make their own artifacts, i.e. essays or books called "interpretations."  What I do think is that when artists make artworks (construct them) they do not incorporate into them entirely determinate meaning.  The meaning of a work of art is something that exists as a potential in the work of art and is actualized in various interpretations.  Thus there can be multiple good interpretations of the same work of art, although some of these might be better (for certain purposes) than others.  If, by constructivist, Stecker means someone who believes that there is no one final correct interpretation of a literary work then I would be happy to be called a constructivist. 

Stecker also says that some constructivists claim that interpretations "alter the properties (features, aspects) of artworks... in interesting ways."  Stecker is right:  this too is an unattractive option.  However, much depends on whether actualization of a meaning that exists as potential in the text is a matter of altering properties.  It is certainly a matter of producing change in the world:  there is now an actualized meaning that did not exist earlier. Moreover, this is a meaning of the work.  If this is altering properties (assuming that such actualizations are what Stecker would call "interesting") then this definition of constructionism is attractive.Of course part of my view would be that one actualization does not permanently change the artwork except in the minor way that that particular actualization has been "taken" and therefor is not available for any later interpreter who seeks to be original and interesting.  Certainly the field of potentiality is subtly changed by every interpretation.  So the history of interpretations affect works in this way.

Stecker says that "A radical constructivist claims that every new interpretation creates a new work, even if each starts out from the same 'text.'  On this view the only difference between an artist and a critic or an interpreter is that the artist creates a 'text' that gets made into a work by being given an interpretation, while the critic or interpreter borrows a text."   Stecker thinks this distinction depends on seeing what we get from the artist as blank marks until given an interpretation.  I agree that it seems wrong to think every new interpretation of Hamlet would create a new Hamlet.  Hamlet remains the same and each interpretation is an interpretation of that same thing.  But is Hamlet the same thing by way of having the same determinate meaning which some interpretations get right and some wrong?  This is equally implausible.  Hamlet is a text that can be read with various understandings, some better than others, and which can be responded to by writing interpretive texts, some also better than others.  Hamlet is not just a series of words, but something that was created at a certain time by a certain person:  and this set of facts conditions the history of its interpretation...determines what is possible.

Stecker writes "If the text of the poem lacks a meaning to be found there, the text of the essay [that interprets it] should be no less opaque" and "something has to have meaning rather than be given it, or the giving of meaning will not be possible."  However if the text of the poem lacks a determinate meaning because the author intends us to use out imagination in reading it then the text of the essay that interprets it should be less opaque.  A reading gives a text of this sort more determinate meaning.  But isn't this the case for the vast majority of literary works.  Aren't they supposed to engage our imaginations and be significant for us.  If they simply recorded pre-set meanings in the minds of their authors wouldn't they then be dead in the literary sense/

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