Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A matter of interpretation

The poststructural stereotype of structuralism, or modernism, was that the latter presumed certainty and correctness, that it was the right way to know and interpret the world.

The reciprocal stereotype of postmodernism is any view is as good as another.

These are extremes, of course. Neither structuralism nor poststructuralism is or ever was monolithic. Both are more complex than their critics like to admit. Still, stereotypes linger and inform arguments.

William H. Gass, in a review of essays by the noted literary scholar M.H. Abrams (and Gass’s former professor), characterizes the poststructural critique of literary theory in just this way: anything goes.

“But suppose,” Gass writes, “as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.”

Perhaps that is the way it goes in the literary world (though I doubt even there you get to pick your pigeons). But these arguments needn’t always retreat to the corners.

The poststructural turn grew out of (or was at least cognate with) anthropology’s idea of cultural relativity. This assertion is a matter of interpretation. But it makes sense historically.

Contact with other societies over the 19th and 20th centuries (coupled with misgivings about slavery and colonialism) eroded the West’s confidence that it had things right, had a privileged view of others, let alone humanity.

A gross extension of this uncertainty is there is no better view: one pigeon is as good as another.

But that’s a leap: it’s one thing to say the culture of my family has nothing privileged to say about your family, quite another to say that the culture of your family has no privileged platform from which to think about itself.

One family may eat food with silverware; another with hands. The fact that these practices are relative to respective families does not mean there is no right way to eat, just that their views about each other must be taken with a grain of salt.

This might smell like I’m saying that a culture critique may only be mounted from within. That may be so. But I’m not making that argument.

I’m suggesting that the challenge to modernism of cultural relativity was more specific than general: a European could not hope to understand an African from a European perspective alone.

That doesn’t mean any view goes, or that there is no basis from which to interpret and evaluate cultural forms (such as literary texts). It’s only to say that a person from one culture is likely to get another culture wrong if she relies on her own cultural resources alone. It does not deny the possibility that there are better and worse interpretations.

There is, in other words, a middle view between a) modern certainty and b) postmodern uncertainty.

One can make better or worse interpretations from premises, and perhaps complex and nuanced variations with other premises, and that a critical “post” modern perspective is not "anything goes" but that "it depends" on the premises, it depends on perspective. Each interpretation is a function of its location relative to what is being interpreted.

Derrida’s project was not to say anything goes. If that was all, why would he have bothered to say anything? His aim as I see it was to expose the reality of multiple possible interpretations, to open up the possibility of richer, more nuanced readings. This is something I think Gass would applaud.

Indeed, Gass once did in a great essay called “In terms of the toenail: fiction and the figures of life.” Here he spoke of the power of metaphor to model (and interpret) the world. Metaphors matter. Perspectives matter. Some metaphors work better than others. We make choices; our choices matter.

In the Jones family they eat with their hands, in the Smith family, with a fork. It’s not “anything goes.” It's a matter of tradition, presumption, culture, point of view. Pluralistic rather than relativistic.

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