Saturday, March 14, 2009

Faith of a Kind: Aggressive Hermeneutics, Felicitous Weak Ontologies, and the Possibility of Interpretive Communities

Figure 1. Juliette Losq, Palimpsest I

by EILEEN JOY

Thanks to Karl's flash review of James Simpson's book Burning to Read, of which I have only read portions, I find myself continuing to be intrigued by the connections between Simpson's book and his article, "Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism" [JMEMS 33.2], especially in relation to Karl's point [one that Holly Crocker also touched upon when she first mentioned Simpson's book in her comment to my earlier post on Prendergast/Trigg/Dinshaw on medievalism and the supernatural] that Simpson, in his book, essentially damns William Tyndale as an intolerant fundamentalist while he also attempts to recuperate Thomas More as a more liberal reader [who nevertheless did heartily endorse execution for those who interpreted Scripture wrongly--so this is a bit of a conundrum, of course, as concerns Simpson's argument, although in his book he freely admits this, I might add, and also offers some excuses], and all of this then raises the intriguing question [which I think Karl hints at] of whether or not Simpson brings a sort of [medieval/early modern/modern] Catholic bias to his book, which brings us right back to the question of faith and interpretation.

I bring up Simpson's 2003 JMEMS article again because I think it relates, in deep fashion, to Simpson's project in his book, which, as Karl has illustrated, has something to do with both:

a) issuing a kind of warning regarding fundamentalist reading/interpretive practices [which are, ultimately, based on the worst kind of fallacious circular reasoning and which have led to real, historical violences that don't remain only in the past, say, of the western European Reformation],

and

b) elevating over Protestantism, if even slightly, a certain Catholic/catholic interpretive practice that values more communitarian strategies of readings of scriptural texts, as opposed to the "persecutory imagination" fostered by the more literalist, Protestant practices of reading [again: Simpson readily admits the persecutions wrought by Catholics, under Mary for example, but he immediately contrasts this to the more genocidal aspirations of Cromwell; at the same time, he forgives neither the Catholics *nor* the Protestants for the ways in which their spiritual and theoretical and legalistic oppositions to each other caused both sides to harden in that opposition and thereby become rigidly unyielding, leading to historical horrors, such as wars, executions, etc.].

A big part of Simpson's project, which seems all to the good, is to reverse the idea that Tyndale holds in the cultural-historical imagination as having been a champion of the free, liberal reader who would have no intermediary between himself and the Bible, whereas the Catholic Church is allied with the position, crudely put, that "stupid people should not be allowed to read and thereby mangle the Bible's meaning" [and therefore, historically, Protestantism is seen as being aligned with certain democratic principles attached to the modern liberal subject and Catholicism is viewed as a kind of bad hangover of a certain medieval anti-individual autocracy]. Simpson is trying to further correct the idea, also very well-rooted in the cultural-historical imagination, that Protestantism, in a sense, goes back in time to recuperate the "true," unfiltered religion, and Catholicism becomes the "foreign" pathogen. Protestantism stands in for the free, liberal subject, whereas Catholicism stands in for rigid authoritarianism. Throwing a little bit of a wrench into all of this, Simpson declares that the Bible's "authority as a written document devastates other forms of cultural authority," and when read "in a certain way, legitimates violence in its many instances of violent narrative or injunction, in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures." At the same time, when "read within an evangelical reading regime, it is capable of exerting a psychological violence on its own committed readers, in the act of reading itself" [Burning to Read, p. 29]. Thomas More, on the other hand [and this is important, for Simpson at least],
promoted a reading culture that recognized the fragilities of the literal sense; trust as the ground of an interpretive community; the inevitable immersion of texts in human history; and the function of the capacious, historically durable institutions in managing unruly canonical texts. [p. 260]
That More himself turned out to be a passionate executioner of "heretics," Simpson attributes not to the reading practices More espoused, but rather to the ways in which More had to harden his position in opposition to the Reformers, and by fighting them, he turned into a sort of replica of their intolerance--an intolerance, moreover, that Simpson believes was part of a larger reading culture whose "punishing [interpretive] disciplines" were well beyond the control of their practitioners, Catholic or Protestant.

Simpson works hard, obviously, to let More somewhat off the hook [perhaps too much], but what really interests me in all of this is how, again, all of this connects back to Simpson's 2003 JMEMS article, "Faith and Hermeneutics," which was part of a special issue edited by David Aers and Sarah Beckwith on "Hermeneutics and Ideology," where they wrote in their Introduction,
In contemporary criticism, religion is apt to be seen as politics in another guise, and the task of a political criticism will be to deliver the medieval or early modern text from its own illusions, to complete the partial insights which it had not the language to say in its own time. Contemporary critics habitually exhibit what Quentin Skinner has called this "familiar but condescending form of interpretative charity." Indeed, we are far more likely to see critics pondering the failures of a medieval or early modern text to address our concerns than we are to find engagement with the complex ways in which these texts conceive their own, often thoroughly different, concerns. But, to quote Skinner again, "to demand from the history of thought a solution to our own immediate problems is thus to commit not merely a methodological fallacy, but something like a moral error. . . . [T]o learn from the past—and we cannot otherwise learn at all—the distinction between what is necessary and what is the product merely of our own contingent arrangements, is to learn the key to self-awareness itself."
Aers and Beckwith hoped with this issue to "explore the hermeneutic presuppositions and consequences of current practices as they apply to explicitly religious writing in the medieval and early modern periods," and Simpson's contribution here, in my mind, is most intriguing [perhaps even contentious] for the ways in which it illuminates the ways in which both medieval and modern hermeneutics have metaphysical grounds of meaning [although, unlike a Jerome or an Aquinas, a deconstructionist such as J. Hillis Miller might deny these]. Perhaps even more alarming or bang-on, depending on your point of view, Smith goes so far as to conflate a J. Hillis Miller's zeal for deconstructionist reading strategies with a Protestant's zeal for believing there is only one way to read, to interpret ["Faith and Hermeneutics," pp. 219-20]. Ultimately, for Simpson,
Hermeneutic traditions, both medieval and modern, appear . . . to be relentlessly preemptive, buying up the discursive space before the interpretative transaction takes place. In that case, the interpretation is a kind of charade, since we know who is going to end up with all the discursive property in advance. All conform to the pattern of cultural appropriation promoted by Jerome, where the Egyptian women are captured and shaven to suit the desires of their captors. And all these traditions would appear to subject the text by seeing through it: just as the police interrogator "sees through" his victim to a meaning he knows will be arrived at, so too do hermeneutic practices of this kind see through their victims. No text is innocent. Readers know what texts are hiding, and they'll have it out before they're finished. The only serious intention to be overcome is the victim's intention to hide the truth. [p. 220]
We have mentioned several times on the blog now Simpson's point about all acts of interpretation requiring "faith of a kind," but we need to also know that he cautions against overly-high levels of faith as well [in whatever "grounds of meaning" one is invested in, whether that is God or power or language or art, etc.], "for the greater the level of faith required, the more likely the level of violence," at which point, Simpson compares the text under scrutiny to a torture victim [!]. Simpson, as we have repeated several times already, will conclude by asking that we beware of "hermeneutic aggression that suppresses the alterity of its subjects," and adopt instead a more "friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents," and which "does not do away with suspicion (we often suspect persons). It does, however, produce interpretations that respect the alterity of its subjects, and it does produce interpretations that are contestable. It also relocates textual and cultural interpretation from the realm of theory to that of hypo-, or under-theory" [p. 236].

I guess my real question here is whether or not contemporary hermeneutic practices can really be argued to share with medieval and early modern hermeneutic practices--especially those aimed at Biblical interpretation--a certain "aggression" that suppresses the alterity of their subjects, while also [and this is the modern twist] disavowing the metaphysical grounds of meaning that enable any hermeneutic moves at all upon a text [and perhaps on the persons who created those texts]? Simpson has some interesting quotations from Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Stanley Fish that certainly seem to support his claim here, but those are highly selective, and it would be my inclination to assume that, while some who ply deconstructive or Foucauldian or psychoanalytic reading practices may very well behave as if they have located the "one true [interpretive] meaning," many who deploy these strategies may just view them as one among many tools for revealing what will hopefully turn out to be a rich surplus of "voices"/meanings within any one text, and never just one meaning.

I won't deny for one minute that certain reading & interpretive communities within the academy do seem to spring up here and there and have even created certain repressive "climate conditions" whereby a scholar goes "hunting" through texts only looking for structures of power, or false binaries, or class struggle, or proto-nationalism, or "queerness," etc. because she believes that is the only way she will get published [although I would like to think that this represents more the anomaly, and that for the most part, most scholars are not choosing their interpretive practices in correlation with prevailing theoretical winds, but rather, are simply going where their personal interests lead them while also allowing texts to offer multiple avenues to interpretation, none of them exhaustive or final]. At the same time, it has to be admitted that interpretive communities do exist, don't they [?]--reading groups of a sort [separated by geography but in sync with each other through conferences, journals, symposia, blogging, etc.] who share common theoretical and other interests and who pore together, with similar critical toolkits, over certain texts? And I would be lying if I said that I didn't know anyone who made deliberate career and interpretive choices based on what a certain predominant interpretive community in their field was supposedly advocating as the preferred interpretive practice [I do know people who made these types of choices, even defensively]. Does this represent a certain type of violence, and inflicted by who/what, exactly? Does every community of interpreters, regardless of their best intentions, eventually act as agents of repression--personal, professional, and otherwise? On a personal level, I don't think so at all, but sometimes when I'm at a conference or symposium surrounded by PhD students, I begin to think otherwise [and there's a very deliberate reason I have never attended a meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, while I very much admire many of the scholars who do attend those meetings, but still . . . . it's an "interpretive community" of a sort I don't want to "join," as it were]. According to George Kateb, the fiercest defender of the individual in political theory, any sort of community at all always poses a danger to the individual [whom Kateb views as the center of moral life], and therefore also threatens liberal democracy and freedom. Communities, therefore, are always to be guarded against, even while certain mechanisms of "mutuality" will always be important for the functioning of any society or politics [for Judith Butler, pace her book Precarious Life, this mutuality is best figured by our shared bodily vulnerability].

I think Simpson's argument is fascinating and challenging, partly because he concludes by actually advocating for a sort of communitarianism [and therefore, within the university and academic humanities, also for interpretive communities], but one which would have a heightened awareness that any interpretation at all requires "faith of a kind," and it would be a good idea if the idea or objects or whatever that faith is reposed in is never 100% locked in. Our faith must be weakly held, in other words [while also acknowledging that something should be at stake--in this sense, Simpson is really talking about ethical reading practices; he is asking us to think about the ethics of our interpretive practices: at a minimum: our relation to the Other of any text under our critical lens], which immediately calls to my mind the work of the political theorist Stephen White who coined the term "weak ontology" to designate "strong beliefs, weakly held." White himself began his career, by his own admission, as an "orthodox Habermasian with a strong commitment to the idea that language has a telos (understanding) and to the associated interpretation of Western modernity as something like a progressive embodiment of that telos" ["Weak Ontology: Genealogy and Related Issues," The Hedgehog Review 7.2 (Summer 2005): 12].

White eventually began to see, like Simpson, that this was just another version of foundationalism [Simpson would say fundamentalism]. Even an anti-foundationalist, White argues, is operating from sort of ontology, and it would be a good idea to make that more explicit and robust, but also more felicitous. White also avers that the intertwined connections between reason and affect that Western philosophy has striven for so long to keep separate, remain obdurately entangled and in "peculiar ways." Weak ontology would be concerned with the "constitution of, and reflection upon, the basic figures of portrayals that animate our thought and action," and our "figurations of self, other, and beyond-human are never purely cognitive matters; rather they are always aesthetic-affective," and a "felicitous" weak ontology would
be one that offered a figuration of human being in terms of at least four existential realities or universals: language, mortality or finitude, natality or the capacity for radical novelty, and the articulation of some ultimate background source. A weak ontologist recognizes that these dimensions are universal in the sense that they are constitutive of human being, but she also recognizes that no one set of figurations can claim universal, self-evident truth. [p. 17]
I was also recalled to White's weak ontology when reading Dan Remein's blog post, "how the we accrues: a question," which was a response to Jeffrey's provocative questions, raised late one night around a quiet table in Greenwich Village in early February, about how we each defined community and how community might matter to us and whether or not any community at all can ever be maintained without ultimately becoming repressive in some fashion, and in his blog post, Dan described one possibility for a type of interpretive community that I think I could really get behind, and which I think resonates with both Simpson's and White's "strong beliefs, weakly held." In his post, Dan shared that, for him, thinking community means also attending to worldliness and to how any community is both in and for the world [for Dan, a community should be both--this might be one of Dan's strong beliefs, with the world itself standing in as one of Dan's "ultimate background sources"], and this also means retaining a certain radical openness, provisionality, and unconditionality with regard to the relation between that larger world within which any community might be situated and the community iself [thus, a community--a good one--would always be changing, always on the move, always disruptible and maybe even disruptive].

As regards a specifically scholarly community, Dan proposed we imagine two types of articulation practices that would be fostered, and even sheltered, within an unconditional, "non-ossifying" scholarly community:

a) speech that is always subjunctive, that even withholds itself before speaking and therefore needs a space within which one feels free to simply be gathering one's thoughts while also speaking them, tentatively [if not timidly] and with "elegant uncertainty"; and

b) speech that is always and constantly saying things with absolute certainty while also always knowing that all statements, no matter how strongly articulated, are always provisional; this speech is willing to betray itself at any given moment while also speaking in tones of strong certainty [this kind of speech is important because, although always provisional, without it nothing would ever be said or would only be said in such a manner that it would appear as if nothing is ever at stake, and something should be at stake: faith in something versus faith in nothing].

It strikes me that the real fun would be in all the stuff [articulations, feelings, thought, writing] that would happen inbetween these two modes of speech [as a result of their open relationality to each other], although the tough questions will always circle back around to what we [might] collectively agree might be, in White's terms, some of the "ultimate background sources" that would inform/undergird our speech acts, or scholarly community--for White, as a political theorist who is concerned with human rights, these matter a lot: they are the things to which we find ourselves always already attached and which evoke something like wonder in us [they could be God, the reality of other persons, the world, art, love, beauty, an idea of justice--but keep in mind that this ultimate background source can never be some kind of unmediated "truth" or reality; the term is borrowed from Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, where it definitely has a theistic cast, but White does not mean it that way].

This is relevant to Jeffrey also asking us when we were together in New York City, what do we believe in? For Carolyn Dinshaw, whose writing first pointed me toward Simpson, we can say [as she herself does] that she believes in multiple temporalities, noncontemporaneous contemporaneities, and in the possibility of inhabiting both one's own and other times simultaneously, and one could say that her scholarship seeks to articulate what this feels like, and also, how a heightened recognition of this state affairs opens up avenues toward a post-disenchanted, utopic historiography. For Jeffrey, as articulated in his post here, it might be the possibility of crafting with his work various alliances between humans, texts, rocks, forces of nature, corpses, and other objects, which then serve as an invitation to his readers to experience with him a sense of wonder at a certain co-inhabitance with a "world made strange." For me, it's the idea that everything is connected--a belief that I can draw a line between any two persons, texts, objects, places, states of mind, whathaveyou [or any combination thereof], and they will start speaking to each other, that they will say something beautiful, or startling, together, and that in this stitching together and dialog, the hidden structures, or patterns, of history will begin to emerge, if even fleetingly. And here, I'm close to Jeffrey in my desire to create alliances between disparate persons and objects, in order to create my own collage-like artworks, as it were, and to wonder at them.

Maybe this is where I begin to edge closer to understanding what Simpson meant when he concluded his essay by asking that we consider re-locating our interpretive practices from the realm of theory to that of hypo- or under-theory. Initially, I was suspicious of this move ["yet another anti-theory diatribe," I thought, nor was I too enamored of Simpson's plea for a more author-centered criticism--I want to know/see what a text can do in the world, not just what it was supposedly intended to do], but I can see, too, the value of asking: how might the artifacts of the past, including texts, tell us things we weren't expecting to hear, if we always come to them armed with theories and vocabularies of interpretation that limit, in certain fashions, what we are both looking for and able to see [in other words, with orientations come blind spots]? The same goes for old-fashioned historicism as it does for deconstruction or New Historicism. And also: is it possible that when we cling too tightly to some interpretive theories over others [especially those that lead to the same answer over and over again], that we participate, however unwittingly, in the establishment of little, totalitarian critical regimes? Or really, hasn't everyone known all along it was a guessing game, and haven't the questions always been more interesting than the answers? I would like to think, too, that all interpretations of medieval texts, coming from whatever orientations, gather together somehow and form an archive of overlapping cartographies of multiple, possible pasts. Which is to say, I also believe in pluralism and parallel universes.

5 comments:

dtkline said...

Your posts are a gift, Eileen. So much to consider and to respond to that'll take me awhile to digest. But just one point for now in relation to the many questions you've posed, perhaps now put into my own categories, and that is that *any* claim of completeness, rationality, surety, self-sufficiency is by definition (at least in a certain Levinasian/Derridean mode) simply the reinstatement of another kind of violence.

I like very much Dan R's point about the subjunctive as "elegant uncertainty," but then again speaking and living in the subjunctive is not a denial of certainty and often not elegant but a recognition of the constantly changing circumstances we occupy. (I'm trying to think through lately some of these questions concerning subjectivity--or maybe we could say "subjunctivity"--in relation to complexity theory and "entanglement" as the physicists say.)

My friends at Purdue, Sandor Goodhart and Sol Neely, are working on midrashic interpretation, and Sandy has used the idea that midrash addresses a breach in the text while simultaneously extending it materially for the purposes of continuing rather than foreclosing discussion. Hence, Levinas' assertion that Judaism is a-theological in the sense that there is no separation between this realm and that (whatever that is) but that God and faith are experienced concretely in the other who addresses and faces me prior to ontology and even epistemology.

So, the initial violence that cannot help but propagate is in this rationalist separation of the human and divine or any binary (for Derrida, "the abstract moment of the concept").

Thus, the challenge is to maintain this self-deconstructive moment / movement--that disrupted and disruptive community you mention--that does not allow these lines we create between these things, persons, texts, objects to ossify but that we experience them as unique moments, with the knowledge that we have ainvested that constellation with meaning at the same time we recognize it's existence.

I guess what I'm trying to add to the idea of weak ontology and interpretive community is a kind of hybrid temporality and momentarily overlapping frames of reference.

All this is to wrestle with the question: How do I remain open to the approach of the other without a sense cynical certainty (I know what's going to happen already), on one hand, and depressed inevitability (since I know what's going to happen I'll pretend I'm open but I won't let myself be affected or effected by this encounter), on the other.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: thanks so very much for your thoughts here, which elaborate on my own [and, I think, Dan's] thinking in such productive fashion. I agree with you that any claim of "surety" is likely a kind of violence, but I wonder, too, how we can live our lives, or advance our scholarship [if even tentatively] without any recourse to statements that might begin, "I believe . . . ." I would like to think that we would all agree up front that even "I believe" claims are always provisional and subject to, as you say, subjunctivity [I love that, by the way] and continual revisions *over time*, but in any case, feeling certain, every now and then, about *something* seems important [this is what I take away from Stephen White's "ultimate background sources," which, nevertheless, can never serve as ultimate "truths"]. But I very much like your pointing to the physicist's "entanglement" here, too--we never quite know [do we?] all the circumstances and relations we occupy at any one given time, and these certainly impinge on whatever it is we might believe in. I like very much Goodhart's and Neely's ideas regarding midrashic interpretation--we've talked about this before on the blog [the importance of always keep interpretation open and never closed, but by the idea of, as you say, *extending* the text materially, we are also saying, "there *is* a text; there is something *there*." This, I think, is where ethics comes in.

Unique moments: I can get behind this and want to strive for this in my own scholarship. I am not working for consensus or what I can maybe get away with within any one, or more, methodologies, but rather, would simply want to create something *new" which I can never fully anticipate in advance, and that is how, partly, we avoid the cynicism and depression you outline. I hope so, anyway.

anna klosowska said...

I don't have a comment, rather I want to say "present" to the question of whether or not someone is, to this--so often we/you don't know. The words here and elsewhere help me access/remain at some ideally-imagined place, the place I want to be.

Karl Steel said...

Have to start my work day, so just must dive in here, but 2 places relevant to this discussion:

a) on antifoundationalism, with emphasis on how this plays out in pedagogy [surely an ethical space?], see Michael Bérubé, What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts, 240 ff., e.g, 250:
"I give a serious hearing to arguments that universalism is a mere stalking horse for Eurocentrism and imperialism, and I acknowledge that these arguments have a good deal of merit when it comes to the historical record; but I do not see these arguments as grounds for giving up on the promise of a truly universal universalism. And yet I'm an antifoundationalist who does not believe that this potential universalism has to be grounded in anything other than the rights with which we agree to endow each other."

b) on the 'minimal violence' required to enclose a being in our care, see Leonard Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient: An Essay of Animality and Human Nature in Derrida, 71-114, for example,
"...the reception throug the name also means that we have no immediate access to the animals themselves. The mediation of the name also protects them at the same as it violates their alterity. To receive without receiving means that we receive not them, not them themselves, but only their names, only this medium of sameness. Since we are able only to receive the name and not the animal itself, we are able to allow the animals to slip away from any essential determination indicated by the phrase 'the animal as such.' The mediation of the name implies that, since we never receive the essence of the animal, we are not able to know how many animals are entering. The name is always indefinite, and therefore it is open to pluralization, to multiplicity; we also say 'rams' in the plural (how many?); instead of 'the animal.' The names never, therefore, hit the one true animal in its nakedness; the names are always improper. We are able then to let the animals remain without determination; indeed, lacking an essence, each animal would form a point of resistance to propriety and determination." (106-107)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I keep hoping to formulate a coherent response to this post, Eileen, but all I seem capable of is Yes. To the tentative, the provisional, the subjunctive, the possible, the innovative, the creative, the future in the past: yes.

I don't understand why scholars -- even my favorite ones -- totalize fields when they talk about them, and usually do so without citing any work at all. It sounds like Simpson does not do that, but I could point to plenty of grand sweeps of queer or postcolonial theory that talk about "the dangers of when they do X." First, the work actually tends to be nuanced and complicated enough to avoid such dangers in actuality. Second, the dangers are - even when not avoided - typically well worth the risks.