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Postmodernism and Literary Interpretation

February 26th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · 6 Comments

Postmodernism and Literary Interpretation

Three basic principles underlie the post-modernistic critique of literary interpretation (and, by extension, other social sciences).

First Principle

The first is that one should have no compunctions about taking a philosophical approach.  There is no point simply in juxtaposing one text against another.  This does not however invalidate the need for, or the utility of, an attempt at deep analysis beyond the text’s workable surface.  “[T]he most powerful and apposite readings of literary works may be those that treat them as philosophical gestures by teasing out the implications of their dealings with the philosophical oppositions that support them” (Culler, 1982, p. 149).

Second Principle

The second is that the structuralist tradition gives short shrift to other alternative accounts, which simply are different, or potentially even more explanatory.  An unequivocal interpretation of a text is a “privileged reading” that simply “suits our purposes” whereas “to be authentic in (our) postmodern condition” is “to admit the indistinguishable fictionality of all interpretive models” (Waugh, 2001, p. 304).

Paul Ricoeur (1970) originated this critique of structural discourse.  Any attempt to discern the meaning of a text hypothesizes a gap between its “real” meaning and its “apparent” meaning.  Consequently one believes the text “presents us with a challenge to believe that [its] true meaning … emerges only through interpretation” (Stewart, 1989, p. 296).  We become “suspicious” of the text.  What is required in order to alleviate this “hermeneutics of suspicion” is a radical critique of the very possibility of understanding and interpreting the text, to begin with (Gadamer, 1984, p. 73).

Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Heidegger all engaged in this style of analysis.  It leads, however, to another problem, which is that each of them perpetuated singular world-views, inconsistent with the others.  This argument now primarily is associated with Jacques Derrida (1967) and deconstructionism.  For example, Homer schematized persons into “heroes” and everybody else.  Dante’s paradigm was sinners versus saints.  Western philosophy is based on the concept that individuals are “rational,” which entails its opposite; and the Judeo-Christian tradition’s views of all of us as creatures of God.  “All these destructive discourses and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle” (Waugh, 2001, p. 354).  None is transferable or for that matter even intelligible to any of the others.  Rather than “adding up” to a composite whole, they “cancel each other out.”  Derrida characterizes this as a “demand for narrative.”  However, “No one inflection enjoys any absolute privilege, no meaning can be fixed or decided upon.  No border is guaranteed, inside or out,” (1979, p. 87, p. 78). (1)

Derrida’s theme has been echoed in the works of philosophers in the British-American academic community such as Richard Rorty (1981).  Says Rorty, both contemporary analytic (e.g., Wittgenstein) and continental philosophy (e.g., Heidegger) offer “parallel deconstructions of philosophy’s traditional claim to privilege, to be the discipline that adjudicates the claims to knowledge advanced by the others.”  There is “no such foundation to knowledge.  Each discipline offers its own way of knowing, and philosophy should not place itself in a position of privilege vis-à-vis these ways of knowing” (Dasenbrock, 1989, p. 9).

In the social sciences, Max Weber averred that nature is blank – a tabula rosa, with universal and unconditionally valid laws. (2)  We then in turn impose culture onto it and culture recursively makes us the types of beings we are.  To continue with the above example, there really were heroes for Homer and there really were sinners for Dante.  The Greeks had heroes (instead of saints) with their respective attributes because that’s what challenged them as they existed in their spatio-temporal environment.  Someone like Odysseus is both a cultural precipitate and a cultural catalyst.  Homer’s template has no inherent or atemporal meaning.  It pertained, to the extent it did, only to the culture he described.  Different cultural perspectives best are regarded as typological categorizations or ways of parsing nature.

As expressed by the Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus:

The Greeks … lived in a moral space that gave direction and meaning to their lives.  In the same way, the Medieval cathedral made it possible to be sinner or a saint and showed Christians the dimensions of salvation and damnation.  In either case, one knew where one stood and what one had to do. … For the Greeks, what showed up were heroes and slaves and marvelous things; for the Christians, saints and sinners, rewards and temptations.  There could not have been saints in Ancient Greece.  At best there could only have been weak people who let everybody walk all over them.  Likewise, there could not have been Greek-style heroes in the Middle Ages.  Such people would have been regarded as pagans – prideful sinners who disrupted society by denying their dependence on God.

(Dreyfus, 2008).

Structuralist interpretations, on the other hand, strive to an inherent meaning from the text.  The resulting synchronic paradigm comes at the expense of any plurality of interpretations.  There always is something contradictory about mapping the open and unfolding processes of narrative on to static or circulating structures.  Structuralist analysis of narrative are “like trying to account for a game of solitaire by demonstrating that the pack was organized into four suits of thirteen different values”  (Connor, 2004, p. 64).  Most structuralists prefer their own interpretations, but even as they do, their bias must be based on the prospect that many other interpretations are possible – a possibility they dismiss.

Third Principle

A third problem is that of the author’s “intent,” to the extent it is possible even to hypothesize such a state of mind.  Most structuralist readings depend on extra-textual evidence and biographical facts about the author’s life.  They frequently however do not support the proffered interpretation, or beleaguers it even further because they are inconsistent with the text itself.  Under Derrida’s view the author cannot control the meaning of the text, since it functions autonomously from authorial intention.  A text can have multiple meanings, one of which might be intended, but none of which uniquely are compelled.

Dreyfus’ colleague at Berkeley, John Searle, addressed this issue in the context of his theory of intention.  In his influential debate with Derrida, Searle (1994) says there are two ways to interpret a text: one based on “literal sentence meaning” and another based on “speaker meaning.”  Under the former, “the meaning of the text consists in the meanings of the words and sentences of which it consists.”  The latter is “what the writer intends to mean” (within the confines of the language and background assumptions of which the text is a narrative).  In this second sense one must “insist on understanding the author’s intentions in understanding the text” (p. 652).

Searle invites us to consider a hypothetical case where one comes across a series of marks on a beach somehow comprising the words to a verse of Wordsworth’s poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.”  “[T]hese marks certainly look as if they constituted a sentence composed of English words,” but it isn’t necessary for them to have been produced intentionally (p. 649), unless they were.  “[D]ifferent tokens of a sentence type can be uttered on different occasions with different intentions” (p. 658), some of which might be opaque (as with this particular example).  These different approaches are not necessarily incompatible.  They are not “competing answers to the same question, but noncompeting answers to quite different questions” (p. 655).

Searle can be read as supporting a structuralist program.  If the meaning of a text can be derived from its words and sentences then it may cohere into a single, intra-textual perspective (subject to Derrida’s critique).  One also can appeal to the author’s overt statements and background for evidence as to what he or she meant.  Even on this second definition, though, most structuralist readings fall short simply because the lives of authors have numerous internal inconsistencies and contradictions.

An Example – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

To illustrate these principles further I will consider Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  One way to read Moby Dick is as a critique of monotheism or onto-theology (that is, the idea that the being of specific entities can be explained in terms of other specific entities, such as a god).  “Theology” (θεολογία) is discourse about god or gods – religion, conventionally understood.  Onto-theology defines a god as the originator of being.  In the Judeo-Christian Tradition the God of Abraham and Moses produced or caused everything that is.  Taking a post-modernist view, however, referring to God simply is “telling a story” – tracing one form of entity (us) back to its origin with some other entity (God).

From the post-modern standpoint this conceptual misunderstanding has pervasively infiltrated the Judeo-Christian literary and narrative tradition and its metaphysics (Heidegger, 1955).  Classically, metaphysics (also a Greek word) is the study of “being as such,” the “first causes of things” or “things that do not change” (Ingwagen, 2007).  It “establishes the conceptual parameters of intelligibility by ontologically grounding and theologically legitimating our changing historical sense of what is” (Thomson, 2000, p. 297).  Each culture has its own metaphysics.  By “codifying and disseminating an understanding of what entities are, metaphysics provides each historical ‘epoch’ of intelligibility with its ontological bedrock.  And by furnishing an account of the ultimate source from which entities issue, metaphysics supplies intelligibility with a kind of foundational justification that … Heidegger characterizes as ‘theological.’”  Theology “reflects a series of historical transformations in our metaphysical understanding of entities are” (Thomson, 2005, p. 8).

The development and progression of Western metaphysics (since the ancient Greeks and the archaic Israelites) has resulted in a proliferation of distinctions such as “reality versus appearance” and “the rational versus the irrational,” all of which Heidegger rejects.  It is a short step from Heidegger’s definition of onto-theology to include monotheism in the sense of Abrahamic religions (primarily Judaism and Christianity, but also – never mentioned by Heidegger – Islam) (Westphal, 2001, p. 9 – 16; Crowe, 2007, p. 187). (3)

Under this polytheistic interpretation, Melville is against onto-theology.  The primary evidence of this tendency is Ahab’s folly of attributing cognition to an insensate beast.  To set forth several more: there is no single “right” perspective to describe the whale – its image can’t be depicted while it is in its natural habitat (the ocean) and it loses its shape on land (Chapter 55, Chapter 56).  Science doesn’t understand it and is unable to explain its migratory patterns, social behavior or even physiology (Chapter 79).  It moves its tail unpredictably in myriad different directions (Chapter 86).  It is covered with hieroglyphic scars (so for that matter is Queequeg).  It is white – the absence of color (Chapter 42).  Its spout can’t be distinguished against the backdrop of sea and sky (Chapter 85).  The sound it makes when spouting is a kind of white noise.  The whale skeleton of the Bower in the Arsacides (Chapter 102) is both a cathedral and a prison.  The trees surrounding it rustle like a weaver’s loom, the sound of which also is white noise.  We are immersed in it and deafened by it as it obscures the meaning of individual discourse, just like we are blinded by the whiteness of the whale (Chapter 42).

Contrasted with the whale’s relentless monochromaticity are various other phenomena suggesting the plentitude of nature.  To cite several examples: Pip hopefully spots a swarm of “multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom” (Chapter 93).  When Ahab nails a doubloon to the mast (Chapter 99), each of the sailors has a different perception of its nature as a talisman.  Even the whale’s spout acts as a prism, breaking white light into the colors of the spectrum.  The colors of this rainbow invite a plethora of different explanations.  The Bower of the Arsacides is a colorful carpet, woven by God.  A “weaver God” who “reveals the rainbow” facilitates this polyglot understanding.  By focusing intently on one objective – Moby Dick – Ahab loses visibility of everything else.  The whale is white only for those who want for it to have a settled meaning, which it doesn’t have.  These reference points are evidence of Melville’s endorsement of an essentially polytheistic perspective. (4)

We know as a matter of his biography however that Melville was “nurtured in orthodox Calvinism by his Dutch Reformed mother and minister; yet by the time he wrote Moby Dick, he had not only lived among cannibals and whalemen but had ‘swam through libraries’” (McIntosh, 1986, p. 23).  His interest was not so much to “attack traditional ideas about God with the object of replacing them with better ideas,” such as polytheism.  Rather, “his mission is prophetic, that of calling us to a deeper life” (Herbert, 1986, p. 113). (5)  His “revolutionary impact upon the novel form does not derive from Christianity’s absence – a formal experimentalism released from the grip of conventions that have their roots in a defeated Protestant orthodoxy – but precisely from its continued presence” (Franchot, 1998, p. 157) (emphasis added).

Such a program hardly can be interpreted as anti-onto-theological.  “Melville’s quarrel with authority was a complex affair, and to strip his profoundly symbolic writings down to theological allegories … is reductive” (Bezanson, 1953, p. 268).  He rejects the “simplifications, reductions and isolations” of dualisms such as monotheism versus polytheism.  In its place he substitutes a “language of wonder” that preserves a “fascination with the particulars of the natural world” while simultaneously embracing and critiquing our assumptions about it (Luck, 2007, p. 5).  This enables us to see outside of our “traditional ways of thinking about religion and spirituality” (Coffler, 2006, p. 112).  In addition to encountering the “realm of the transcendent,” Melville also wanted to “dramatize [both the] parallel failures of human striving (Ahab) and knowing (Ishamel)” (Buell, 1986, p. 61) (emphasis added).

The ideal culture Melville envisions is one that permits these different perspectives to cohabitate, or in which they become entirely irrelevant.  Melville is not an “individualist” or “personality driven.”  Nor is he some kind of a latter-day ecologist, concerned only with man’s depredations against nature. (6)  He is far more concerned with achieving a balance between purposeful human action and the world that constrains it – including not only nature, but also human culture, history and conventions.

Culture is produced by human social interactions such as the squeezing of the hands (Chapter 94).  On such occasions we attune ourselves to social practices and become sensitized to the corresponding intuitions they evoke.  They are created, manifest themselves, and we are aware of them (to the extent we are) only within the space of this “clearing.”  They are a precipitate of dwelling, standing against the homelessness of wandering and an individualistic stance towards the world. (7)

Although not referring to Melville, two modern social theorists have expressed this idea with particular clarity: Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor.  In his essay “Civil Religion in America” (1967, p. 175), Bellah elaborated on Rousseau’s definition of “civil religion,” redefining it as “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity.”  It is “neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

According to Taylor (1989, p. 512), “We are now in an age in which a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility.” (8)  As a result, we have “tended to displace in importance the sense of belonging to large scale collective agencies” (Taylor, 2007, p. 484).  This is contrary to our nature, because “to make the demand for meaning is not an optional stance.  It is central to our humanity” (p. 584), and cultural institutions are an “indispensable matrix of civilizational order” (p. 491).  Any contemporary definition of self “requires answers totally dependent on cultural or moral contexts, frameworks, or orientation – human categories of personal and social action, of value” (Tauber, 2006).  This is appropriate because (man) is “a self-interpreting animal.  He is necessarily so, for there is no such thing as the structure of meanings for him independently of his interpretation of them; one is woven into the other” (Taylor, 1987, p. 46). (9)

The outcomes envisioned by Bellah and Taylor do not imply an anti-onto-theological critique.  They do not iterate a rigid monotheism or an anti-onto-theological opposition to it.  As if anticipating Bellah and Taylor, Melville does not fault monotheism per seAll religions “employ a controlling hierarchy; with narrow doctrines that restrain and control people’s choices and lives.”  But Moby Dick should not be read as depicting a “battle between good and evil with Ahab as the human hero trying to destroy the symbol of evil in the whale.”  Ahab may be a “madman who is convinced that he has the right and the power to pursue his personal goal as symbolized in Moby Dick, a mere creature in nature that has little or no interest in humans.”  But this isn’t Melville’s point.  What is wrong is any form of religion that structures the world “in such ways as to be available to empower an Ahab, who believes that he has the knowledge of good and evil and may act for the rest of his society, nation, or the world” (Elliott, 2005, pp. 190 – 191).  In juxtaposing Ahab against Moby Dick, Melville “forces the reader to contemplate the Absolute suddenly placed in what appears to be the ordinary contingencies of life, and then to consider the consequences” (Obenzinger, 2006, p. 181).  All of which illustrates Melville’s conception of a dynamic clearing situated beyond the categories of faith. (10)

Melville also suggests a resolution of the apparent impasse between monotheism (as embedded in the Judeo-Christian Tradition) and the more “authentic” understanding of being.  In this respect, while it is (trivially) true that “no single artist … can ever represent an entire culture,” there is a profound sense in which Melville is “truly representative of the kind of humanity that gives meaning to culture (Bryant, p. 4).  Moby Dick “conceives one last and greatest quest for a whole vision of a whole world” (Grenberg, 1989, p. 93).


(1) In fairness to Heidegger some commentators disagree with Derrida that Heidegger should be lumped into the same category as Marx and Freud.  Heidegger does more than simply “attempt to relinquish philosophical ties to the past.”  He calls for a “fundamental reinterpretation of them” thereby allowing for “reinterpretation at a revivified ontological level constantly in view of the question of being” (Mei, 2007).  Dreyfus (1991, p. 36) recognizes this dynamic in the structure of Being and Time (MacAvoy, 2001, p. 463; Russell, 2008, p. 97).

(2) Seen in this light a better interpretation of the whiteness of the whale (Chapter 42) is not the absence of color or the embodiment of malevolence.  Our inability to classify it is symptomatic of our own ontological confusion (Werge, 1969, p. 96).  We are confused because of the ambiguity of the interface between man and nature.  “Melville’s careful disorderly reading of antiquity’s inscription of the whale attests to myth’s ambiguities.  His use of the whale in classical myths confirms the persistent permeability of myth’s borders and Melville’s celebration of that permeability.  The mythical whale-man and the recorder of tales remind us that myth grants us complexity and, in its variations, compounds the complexity of narrative’s desire.  The cumulated variations, the diversity of competing accounts of any myth, preserve and safeguard contradictions.  For Melville, myth-maker, selective reader, and purposeful natural historian, these variations extend a chase on ancient waters beyond a three-day pursuit of Moby Dick toward the ever-receding horizon and the morphing shape of the whale” (Djelal, 2006, p. 53).

(3) It would have been truer to the phenomena Heidegger described if he had not disapproved of monotheism per se.  He should be more interested in opposing the initial juxtaposition of experience into categories such as monotheism versus polytheism, to begin with.

(4) Although he does not mention him, Dreyfus’ account is a more sophisticated version of (and may have been inspired by) Thompson (1952).

(5) In this respect Melville may come close to realizing Derrida’s objective of “going beyond” philosophical interpretation.  Whenever one does so, one establishes a dichotomy, if only to distinguish between one’s own perspective and other less-preferable ones, and to explain why yours is better.  Derrida wanted to establish a vocabulary that is “intrinsically and self-evidently final, not merely the most comprehensive and fruitful vocabulary we have come up with so far.”

In doing so, of course, Derrida himself offered a theory.  Setting this criticism aside as more-or-less trivial (which it is), the move one has to make to get behind the bivalency of interpretation – to  “write about philosophy unphilosophically, get at it from the outside, be a postphilosophical thinker” – is far from clear.  It can’t be “pretending to say the same old thing while subversively putting a new spin on the old words.”

Derrida’s advice is to use “noninferential associations” (such as those suggested by literature) instead of “inferential connections” (such as those demanded by formal reasoning), a process he calls différance, which somehow avoids inter-explicable oppositional concepts.  It is not at all clear it is possible to make such a maneuver to effect such an outcome.  To the extent it is, Melville is within shouting distance of it, because he is not juxtaposing monotheism with polytheism.  Melville’s “quarrel” is not so much with God as with the conceptions of God in the two religious traditions (Herbert, 1977; Sherrill, 1978, p. 325).  Melville can be seen as creating a new discourse that attempts to overreach these distinctions.  Quotes are from Rorty, 1984, p. 5, p. 10, p. 13.

(6) “The interfusion of self and non-self, of metaphysics and earthly domains, resists eighteenth-century rationalism and positivism, which required that nature be objectified and placed at a distance so that it could by systematically studied. … The comprehension of nature as a mechanical system – although at first buttressing eighteenth-century deistic theology – ultimately removed God from the world” (Harvey, 2006, p. 72).

(7) This is not some kind of private mental universe.  Melville “discovered that the universe is an infinite sum of concepts, a universal conceptual brotherhood.”  He realized “that the actual and anonymous universe remains shielded and impervious to man exactly because this opaque net of concepts or masks, like an impenetrable wall, intervenes. … In its anguished effort to perceive the world, [our mind] constantly creates more and more names, weaving thus more and more ‘eyelets’ into that net, and making, thus, its prison even more stifling. … Every new concept the mind invents in order to create itself or to define its identity is also a new disguise of itself, a replacement or substitution of its own self, a new mask” (Christodoulou, 2001, p. 162).

(8) Taylor specifically invokes Odysseus: his homecoming “from the realm of the monstrous, the threatening, of the limit situation, to the joys of ordinary life with its rhythmed flow of time” is “one of the constitutive experiences of modernity” (p. 627).

(9) Dostoyevsky actually accomplished this synthesis in The Brothers Karamazov (1880).  “His religion is Orthodoxy because it is the religion of the Russian people” (Mirsky, 1949, p. 283) (emphasis in original).

(10) Heidegger’s concept of “clearing” also is a better way to understand the Bower of the Arsacides.  Its weaver god is does not suggest polytheism.  It is the integration of nature and human purpose.  Penelope also weaves the shroud of Laertes; her name incorporates the Greek word for “web” or “wool” (πήνη).  She cunningly unravels it each night to avoid remarriage to one of the suitors, just as she interprets the plot of Odysseus’ return.  Weaving is her counterpart to Odysseus’ wandering (though she is more successful in controlling the course of events) (Felson-Rubin, 1996, p. 166).


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