Monday, October 30, 2006

Some notes on Faithful Interpretation

I’ve just finished AKMA’s latest book, Faithful Interpretation, and will make a few notes while it’s fresh. First, I came away with a renewed sense of the intelligence and integrity of the man and his writing. Reading him slowly is rewarded because he is saying things he’s thought about long and subtly.

Next, I sense there’s a “plot” to the book, never openly divulged, but underlying it nonetheless. It opens with the confrontation with Kings of Modern Biblical Interpretation, long known for their exegetical skill, and suggests there is something fundamentally amiss in their approach to reading. The problem is how they privilege “history” – itself a complex web of interpretive tradition and value – so far that all else, including Theology, is subordinated to it. That is to say, if we cannot adduce what we moderns agree is historical evidence in support of the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection, well, then we might just have to let these events – and whatever other significance they may point to – take a back seat to our historiographic detailings.

Historians can tell us about what various theologians, political figures, texts, and images say about Christ, but the historiographic ascesis that can immeasurably help clarify interpretive questions also obliges us to remain mute on a question for which the evidence is inaccessible (or at the very least) fundamentally controverted. (43)

One treads carefully here because AKMA tends to not underscore where the floorboards are weak or entirely nonexistent. He’s more like David Hume, facing the really troubling stuff head on, but calmly and without the existential crisis mode of latter day academic theoreticians who keep anxiously interpreting for us the fact that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But there’s crisis nonetheless as the reader learns that not just history, but the very apparent solidity of the text itself turns out to lack the minimal requisite stability to provide an object of intellectual inquiry. With a nod to Stanley Fish, AKMA finds little there there other than what the interpreter, working from within one or another set of local interpretive rules and practices, brings to her/his task:

…a more useful approach [than Fish’s claim that no text exists] would be to concede the (possible) objective existence of the text while denying it any functional efficacy. (127)

Without the twin supports of historiography and an actual, shared text, the authority of the high priests of scriptural understanding doesn’t seem quite so well founded, or grounded.

At this point – when the primary modern mode of contextual analysis and the very notion of “the text” itself have been replaced with, basically, nothing – things begin to look pretty bleak.

The narrative takes a turn here not by invoking some simple interpretive scheme or other deus ex machina, but by adducing in serial fashion several ways in which this loss of terra firma can actually be a gain for faithful interpreters.

The first step is to understand that while we might never have the chance to agree on either the text or a privileged approach to it, we have the local practices of communities of readership that come with certain constraints helpful for working out viable readings. The second step is to see the possible value of a world of differing understandings – what AKMA calls “differential hermeneutics.” This is possible only if we let go of the idea that there is one sole universal meaning “in” the text which all proper readers are obligated to share. Not only do texts not contain meaning, but as already noted, they really can’t be said to have much of an objective existence at all.

The sacrifice of the container/content sense of text, and of the text as stable, identifiable body, is at the heart of the major plot turn in Faithful Interpretation. Faced with the abyss where was once the Guiding Light, the interpreter will receive help from the local community and from a re-vision of what it means to interpret scripture. Because the locus of meaning is no longer in the text, or in the interpretive scheme, but in something more immediate and fluid – the “signifying practices” to which communities of faithful readers will be prodded, spurred, impelled by tuning in to what manifests in their lives as a result of viewing said lives within the order of signs of which scripture, the Word, is one very important anterior sign. (It is important to note that AKMA is always speaking from and to a reading community of believers.)

That is to say, the role of the reader is what has changed. From an allegedly passive “mind” working to develop an accurate, placid picture of a stable meaning latent somewhere within a text, it becomes a more a mode of participatory action. Where? In the reader, of course, whose every moment in time is constituted by his/her manifestation of that Word in their voice, body language, ethical choices, art, music, inflection – their incarnation, in short, of the Word, which AKMA calls “constitutive repetition.” (122)

The interpreted text is not what you, or he, or others say it is, it’s what manifests in the lives it inspires. It breathes us, we dance it.

The plot of the book ends with a moving description of performative harmony that lives up to AKMA’s title. This is sufficiently radical (and possibly empowering) as an approach to the epistemology of reading that I want to stop and consider it. But I need to raise one quibble that’s nagged me from early on in reading Faithful Interpretation, and that’s this: perhaps for strategic reasons, AKMA goes further in denying objective attributes to texts than seems necessary or warranted by “the facts.”

I.e., it’s safe to say that there are many, many features of written language that can be identified, logged, quantified, in a manner that most (one can’t say “all,” ever) people would find nothing to disagree with. We can count the “Q’s” in a poem and arrive at a total – and, pace AKMA’s pains to assure us that one never reads the same Q twice, there’s a literal identity that subtends the manifestations of that and every other member of the alphabet that cannot be elided by attending to differences such as whether the Q is in print, or handwritten, etc.

That’s a trivial example, but then that’s what the Trivium has always been: a set of mere tools crafted over centuries in multiple languages by gifted observers of human language – folks like Aristotle, Quintilian, Dionysus Thrax and a lot of other very subtle people from Cicero to Chomsky – that enable us to describe with some degree of accuracy certain properties of language: from sentence structure to syncope to tropes, figures, logical relations and syntactic aberration. It’s an enormous human inheritance that deserves acknowledgement. Whether and to what extent our competence to share rich descriptions of a text can serve as a basis for interpretive legitimacy is an eternally contested question. My only point is that there is reason to have faith in the utility of a distinction between description -- as per the Trivium -- and interpretation, which, as AKMA, I think, rightly argues in harmony with Nietzsche, is sheer Theology.


Blogger Juke said...

Cicero to Chomsky to Evers to Chance.
Good work.

10/31/2006 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Tutor said...

AKMA is a committed Christian and he is imbued with the ethos and convictions, lives the way of life, of his interpretive community. But is he as an enlightened, educated man, schooled in Theory, also agnostic as among interpretive communities? Does he say in effect, to each his own interpretive community, or is he willing to condemn some as say misguided, bigoted, mendacious? And if so, would be think that such an interpretation is valid only within his own parish, among his own parishioners, or would be feel that his condemnation could and should carry - with full weight - to other communities and parishes, say down South, among the Evangelicals who hold a very different view of the Inerrant Word of God?

If AKMA is right, are Falwell and Dobson, who claim a univocal Word of God mistaken? What would he say? That they are wrong within his interpretive community, but not their own?

I am much less interested in this kind of epistemology than I am with moral and political philosophy and practice.

To let the Fundamentalists off lightly, without forcing the issue, is a moral choice, and a political choice, and a career choice. If AKMA is anywhere nearly right, they are greviously wrong and he should head on down South to let them know, to go on mission work down here, as the Bigots take their mission on the road every day. He owes it to them to save them from the error of their ways. Their intellects and their souls are at stake.

We aren't going to gain turf for englightened interpetive communities if we fudge the issue of confrontation, satire, politics and war, which is how interpretive communities settle their differences once they give up on the dream of reason.

The Bible is inerrant. AkMA is a pointy-headed intellectual. He has not been born again, will not be saved, will die in his own vomit after the Rapture.

So says an insurgent and growing interpretive community. What says AKMA? (Move North?)

11/01/2006 11:30 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Tutor, fwiw, I know AKMA has been south, worked in one or more Florida communities for some years a while back.

And while I don't think this needs saying, let me remind you that whatever in my mumbled notes - which do no justice to the arguments presented in FI - led you to think otherwise, the main thrust of AKMA's book is toward the ethical - "moral and political philosophy and practice," as you say. He's too honest, however, to simply bracket matters of truth in some rush to get there.

As a good reader, you know you'll need to read the book - I'm still mulling many things in it and don't pretend to speak for him.

One thing to consider is how the grounds of your combat model change -- no longer is it "why we are right and you are wrong," haloed by some priestly (or TV Evangelical) authority. It's bigger, more ardent, creative, spirited. To argue (again, just me speaking out of school) with a bunch of obese, white Bushites sitting on their hams about WhatJesusWouldBeDoing or finer points in Raptor Hermeneutics would be to forego a far richer vision and mission. Which is not to say that the sort of interpretive repetition AKMA has in mind is not capable of having its own market effect. I don't see him plotting an escape into vapid aestheticization of the gospel - do you?

11/02/2006 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Tutor said...

Your post made me want to read the book, so I should have done just that, rather than commenting. In reading your post I was looking for terms that might be "transcendent" of sociology, "theory," or language games. I was listening for liturgical language that had a vertical axis. Of course AKMA is a committed Christian and an exemplary figure; to me, he is a man I would like to emulate. But the unbinding of the text is a secular or ant-idealizing move, often. A desacralizing move, often. The unbound text becomes errant signifiers wandering in a wilderness of interpretation, no longer a plenitude of the Divine, but a emptiness into which and out of which signifiers endlessly shuffle in some orgasmic but essentially earthbound juissance. I was listening in your account for grounds for moral intransigence, for truth-claims, or claims of grace and revelation, that might be vouchsafed to some, denied others, and that would define a covenanted interpretive community, while others not so blessed might rightly be cast into outer darkness.

I should read the book and see how AKMA casts salvation and revelation; are they holograms created by the community as symbols and metaphors of shared communal life, or are they a shaft of light from above that touches down here, there, or everywhere? If those who preach the word of God as "inerant" are right, is AKMA wrong? If he is right, or they wrong? Or is it, "Hey, you got your interpretive community, we got our's and God loves us all, everyone one."

This is a running conversation for me with AKMA. I say to him, for example, that I am not in state of grace, though I might wish to be. He as a man of God has the calling to touch the sinner. Can he touch me, as my mentor on line? Or, must I enter his interpretive community by the main door, through the rituals designed for that purpose. Must I play his langauge game by his rules, or can he invoke grace, man to man, in the open, outside of church? Can his words, channeling Jesus, truly touch me, heal me, unless I enter his community of belief?

I have gone so far as to ask for his blessing while standing in a secular space. You can imagine the tension. Are blessings operative outside the liturgy and commemorative community of worship? He denied the availability of the blessing as I remember, given my attitude no doubt, but in leaving the room, he said, "God bless," over his shoulder. (He also cited St. Mark on parables as saying pretty explicitly that some are not meant to enter the interpretive community and are cunningly excluded from understanding the living word of God, so that they will remain damned.)

Might one decide, someone like AKMA, that the greatest work is converting the heathen, not preaching to the confirmed, but taking the message of Christ door to door in Evangelical communities here, say, in Dallas to cast out the devils they mistake for Christ?

I don't see how "interpretive communities" can be an ultimate ground for theology. And if his interpretive community, its way of life, is the true way of life, then surely the Evangelicals who preach war, vanity bigotry and greed are heretics.

What I am looking for is a "clash of civilizations" between the high church educated crowd like AMKMA's and the politicized and retrograte low Church. I would like to see them fall to fighting in public, and for AKMA's more urbane crowd to win, if only through satire, as did Dean Swift, so we could all agree that the Bible is not a coherent Text, with unquestioned authority, but a Pre-Text for interpreations, just like any other Great Book. For religion to be just a form the humanities, higher form of art, would suit me, as being a whole lot less dangerous than religious zealotry. But I am wondering how a man of the book like AKMA can have it both ways, for the Bible to be a Pre-Text but also the word of God to which we must be faithful unto death.

As I say, I should read the book. I am arguing here with my own ghosts. Thanks, Tom.

11/02/2006 9:35 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Your truepennies are not unfamiliar. I came to the book sharing many of your questions. I am divided between trying to address what I can and just letting the book and its author speak for themselves.

I don't know if this helps: what AKMA seems to have directly in his sights is the numinal sort of priestly interpretive authority you seem to be longing for him to assert. An authority that can be comfortably vacuum molded to comfortably and unembarrassingly dine with cultural, academic and scientific modes of Modernism is not his preferred moral style.

AKMA wants to reinsert readers of the Bible in a tradition of interpretation that extends back to the earliest days. To do this is to undo a lot of the binary thinking that underlies modernism in its various forms -- some of the very conceptual oppositions you are using and asking him to use: science/religion, fact/interpretation, truth/fiction, contemplation/action, sacred/profane, now/then, high/low.

Your Enlightenment perspective asks, "What after all would be the use of the Truth if one couldn't apply it to separate wheat from chaff, enlightened humanists with a dash of spirits from beerswilling Texas godolaters?"

My suggestion would be that the Apocalypse is in some ways the most rationalist moment in the entire Bible, and by then it's too late.

Interpretation that's faithful apparently involves a humbling acknowledgement that one cannot master truth; at one point, p. 129, you will read:

"there is no more method in exegesis than in fishing."

I know some people are luckier at fishing than others, but whenever they explain their methods, I remain unconvinced. Truth is not, FI suggests, something to be subordinated to our cherished projects for improving mankind.

I don't mean to suggest that we're left in the usual POMO muddle. AKMA deeply affirms the need for the social, for a community that is not simply reasserting what it knows to be true, but, as in many of our exchanges (you, Phil, and I), critically challenges and explores the web of assumptions, values and lunatical hobbyhorses that color and shape our approaches.

That's partly why there is no inside/outside, while at the same time there is this activity of a defined local community that is distinct from activity around it. But I'm just fishing at this point.

11/03/2006 10:06 AM  

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