Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Critical Reading and Interpretation

To grant the biblical texts authority, they had to be interpreted. The 1500 year enterprise from an assemblage of oral traditions and literary fragments through midrash, mishnah, gamara-- to Joseph Caro’s codification in the Shulkhan Arukh (which itself, must be continually interpreted) while claiming the text as authority, does so by first silencing it, fixing it as a mute idea whose voice can only be heard as resurrected through its interpretations, where it regains multiplicity in the new texts that have been generated. Christian history follows a parallel course.

Texts are inherently unstable, and hence, without authority. Power, whether exercised by religious institutions or secular, faced with the need to legitimize their authority, have to resort to interpretation. Interpretation, whether literary, legal or religious, is about one thing, and one thing only: locating authority for power.

Interpretation identifies ‘meaning,’ by relocating it outside the text, granting it independence as something that can be comprehended in itself, by itself. Free standing--with the ghost of the text as 'idea' hovering over it. This ‘meaning’ is only a mask for the operative relocation of authority, making it available for use--to legitimize power.

A critical response, to remain open to the text, rejects interpretation. A critical response is just that: a response--a multifaceted encounter with text and at the same time, with the imaginative, productive subject involved in the encounter. A critical response has no authority and claims none.

A critical response doesn’t say, this is what I found, offering up bones and tools like an archeologist with artifacts from an excavation; a critical response reports what happened in the encounter, and what is happening in the act of reporting it, a map of a journey and a process that echoes, but does not reiterate or claim to reproduce the journey and the process that generated the text. It is a continuation of that which generated the text, not an end point.

I haven’t read Sontag’s, “Against Interpretation.” I don’t know if I’m thinking along the same lines, or have something entirely different in mind, but I see I will have to read her 1964 essay now and compare.


  1. Quite honestly I don't recall her approaching it in this way, but she definitely laid the groundwork for your conclusion without stating it so boldly. But remember she wrote it at a time when she was trying to establish her own authorial power and you know what Steven says: Knowledge is power when it's withheld.

  2. I just finished reading it. Much common ground. I find some significant weakness.. she comes close to blaming art for the problem by proscribing what they should and shouldn't do, and muddles her thinking by not isolating texts and works of art from the real world 'content' interpreters would claim they represent... a most egregiously reductive take on Marx, which might have led her to 1) ask how real world phenomena become interpretations... I mean, what is going on here, if the interpretations of psychology etc, are already interpretations, where does the process begin? 2) why are sacred texts held to be necessary, what role does that attributed necessity play in what the interpretations are meant to accomplish? This would have led her (maybe) to rethink her take on Marx and see the primacy of power in the equation.

    I've taken notes and will write a post on her essay, but first... another walk in the park!