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Volume 10, Issue 1: Non Est

Interpretation as Violence

Douglas Jones

"Interpretation is a hostile act in which interpreter victimizes text. . . . The interpreter lives by eating; he sinks his teeth into the text in order to inwardize the outward."1 Most strands of literary poststructuralism share this vision of interpretation as violence, interpretation as the willful distortion of reality. How do they draw such conclusions? It's easy just to laugh tritely or ignore poststructuralism and point out its self-defeating demands. But what constructive Christian views do we offer in its place? I won't pretend to be able to do that here or elsewhere, but we can scratch around at the edge.

Like the writer quoted above, postmodern theologian Charles Winquist also talks about the violence of interpretation. Interpretation, he says, "doubles the imagination by imagining imagination. Figures for the transgression of language are substituted for the transgression of nature. The assault on language is a reduplication of the assault on nature."2 Let's try to understand this: interpretation, he claims, distorts [assaults] some existing bit of language [a text], and that text itself is already a distortion of nature. Figuring out this initial distortion of nature by language will go a long way toward explaining why any later interpretation just compounds the violence.
So how does language distort nature? Their answer is that language is always metaphorical. All words are metaphors—nonliteral symbolism, and thus different from the actual thing in the world. For them, metaphors are lies. They don't capture reality like a mirror, i.e., literally. Metaphors say that something is something else—"Rudolph Reed was oaken. His wife was oaken too." But metaphorical language isn't just some narrow subset of language; it is all of language. Every word (running, elbow, is, madness) is a metaphor, a move away from the real. Winquist put this point as, "We begin with metaphor, talk about metaphor metaphorically, and recognize every closure as metaphorical achievement. . . . A necessary ambiguity lies in the wake of discursive achievements because of their metaphorical structure. Literalism is an illusion. What we mean by meaning requires both substitution and difference."3
So language is always metaphorical, and metaphor somehow distorts reality. But if we grant this, how exactly does metaphor distort? A poststructuralist answer lies in a comparison to perception. Language doesn't act the same way seeing does. Seeing is more like a mirror (they say), and "the semantic achievement is not perceptual. Only if we stood in close proximity to objects as we were naming them and accompanied the naming with a pointing gesture might we sustain the mirror image. As soon as we distance ourselves and defer meaning, we immediately note a difference. . . . The word dog does not look like a dog, sound like a dog, or feel like a dog."4 Words immediately put distance between us and the original dog, and we can never get back to the original dog (or event or authorial intent) by invoking more words. The more we interpret, the farther we go away into an inescapable labyrinth of words upon words.
Nietzsche, the crazy uncle of postmodernism, similarly described the violence of human thinking/language when he described concept formation: "Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept `leaf' is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; . . . What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms—truths are illusions, metaphors which are worn out."5 In short, the world is a flowing river, and language/concepts try to act as cookie cutters trapping water, holding it still, but the water keeps twisting away, uncapturable. Reality is arbitrary. Then they make a series of sexy incantations and declare quite unsurprisingly that knowledge and meaning are arbitrary, thus conveniently assuming what they need to prove. But any talk of proof and truth quickly make them swoon and talk darkly about the evils of metaphysics (this swooning over truth again just assumes that reality is a river).
Christianity clashes instantly with this view of reality. In creating the world, God molded it into numerous natural kinds, making a distinctly jointed and pre-cut reality. The world separates into parts and wholes, kinds and species, numerous objective divisions (all without Platonic-Aristotelian forms, by the way). If that's the case, then Nietzsche's complaint about conceptualization falls quite readily. If there are genuine natural kinds, such as dogs and leaves, then our general, abstract concepts have the ability to correspond to reality, not distort it. Instead of conceptual violence; we can have conceptual faithfulness.
With this view of reality, moreover, the worry over metaphor evaporates too. That complaint can only bother us if language and thought/concepts are identical things. If language is arbitrary, historically conditioned, metaphorically distortive, and also identical with human thought, then all human thought becomes arbitrary. But a healthy Christian account of cognition keeps language and thought related but distinct items. In simple terms, thought, especially conceptualization, is a lighthouse, lighting up the various joints and divisions of reality. On the other hand, language—the physical symbols and sounds that we conventionally attach to a particular conceptual light beam—can be as arbitrary and metaphorical as it likes without violating external reality or even brushing it rudely. That "dog" doesn't resemble any Labrador is quite irrelevant to the accuracy of our mental light beam. After all, truth is a metaphor.

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