Monday, January 30, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 6

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 6: The Unfollowable World

The opening pages of the final chapter are spent revisiting the bipolarities of hermeneutics and the focal point of Kermode's estimations on interpretation. What his project seems to aim for is not a harmonizing of different and diverse perspectives, but a situating of them according to their reaction to an inescapable principle:

"Yet all practice divination, however intermittently, erroneously, dishonestly, or disappointedly; most of all, disappointedly. For whether one thinks that one's purpose is to re-cognize the original meaning, or to fall headlong into a text that is a treacherous network rather than a continuous and systematic sequence, one may be sure of one thing, and that is disappointment....There are certain conditions which make the task more comfortable: more or less acquiescent in the authority of institutions, more or less happy that we have an acquired taste for fulfillments, for a state of affairs in which everything hangs together, we accept a measure of private intermittency in our interpretation -- unless we are unhappy because such acquiescence is an acceptance of untruth, and prefer antinomianism and the unhappiness of an even more complete isolation. In any case, a sense of mystery is a different thing from an ability to interpret it, and the largest consolation is that without interpretation there would be no mystery." (126)

Kermode seems to be indicating that in order to make coherent, one must have the thing which is received incoherently. And it would also seem that part of the incoherence that is present in any text is at least in part identical with the incoherence of our own selves -- staring into the words on the page is like staring into a mirror:

"[W]e cannot avoid the reflection that we ourselves are intercalated into the story in precisely this way, between the long past (which we recapitulate) and the imminent ending, which is our own, and, like Mark's, no parousia but a matter of fear and silence." (127)

Notice how the earlier decision regarding his interpretation (that Mark's Gospel ends at v. 8) is played out here in his discussion of how interpretation proceeds. The incorporation of
interpretation within interpretive theory is not simply reflexive, not even predominantly reflexive, but is rhetorical -- purposed and intentionally directed. Kermode intercalates at precisely the point where he is discussion intercalation, as a kind of self-validating exercise or example. What are we to understand of such decisions and practices? How are we to interpret Kermode's interpretation of interpretation (to allow ourselves to be tossed into the vicious cycle for a moment)? Is what is going on here demonstration or advocacy or both, or neither? At least one thing can be said for certain, which Kermode's example reveals quite clearly -- decisions must be made about the questions that hermeneutics asks, even if those decisions are only temporary or are tossed aside later. And what Kermode may leave underdeveloped is that the questions that the hermeneut asks are every bit as important as the assumptions and decisions that get made before and in the process of engaging texts. Kermode says that without interpretation there would be no mystery, but it could be put in the reverse order as well; there could be no interpretation without a mystery, without a question, without a concern. And though concerns are often conditioned by one's presuppositions and institutional assumptions, they can also arise from the text itself, and at many times unbidden or unsummoned. And even those questions and concerns that do not initially inquire of the mysterious sense will often end up there.

And so Kermode desires to take up the issue of intercalation in his final chapter, of those insertions that do not make a lot of sense on the surface level of the Gospels. First, there is the death of John the Baptist in Mark's Gospel, then there is the story of the woman with the hemorrhage. Kermode questions so far as to whether Mark itself is an intercalated story. His mode of operation is one that is probing what possibilities seem warranted by the structure of the language. But Kermode does seem intent on having a controlling or influential telos or principle that hedges the expansiveness of inquisitive possibilities:

"I have been proposing that the device of intercalation in Mark's narrative is an emblem of many conjunctions and oppositions, which are found at all levels of the discourse. Like Starobinski, I think these should be attended to, and not dissolved by recognitive hermeneutical tricks [what does that mean anyway??]; for these conjunctions and oppositions reflect something of what the gospel presupposes [can language presuppose, or only persons?] of its own structure, and the structure of the world. The pursuit of such interpretations is not merely a matter of method; there has also to be divination, and divination is an art related only very dubiously to rules. When Eliot said that they only method was to be very intelligent he was both exaggerating and saying too little. Method, he meant, is secondary, for first there must be divination. Having divined, you must say something by way of explaining or communicating the experience of that bewildering minute, and then method is useful. Of course, no divination is adequate to the whole task of interpretation; it may only record a radiance." (137)

Divination, as I understand it, relates directly to the subject of questions and questioning. Divination is in large part response. It is a response to the text, to what it may mean, and such response is conditioned by the question it asks of the text. Those "radiances" are what come from asking the right questions. And, as divination is difficult to organize by rule, so too are the right questions for any given text. It may also be said that though a plurality of right questions exist for any text, their are some whose radiance is brighter, as there are divinations that are brighter, as there are interpretations. But I am saying nothing here that Kermode and others haven't already said, though perhaps in different words. Though I would offer that by returning to the questioning of what one's questions of the text are provide a corrective for the interpreter who is accused (by others or by self) of serving a method or an institution blindly.

Kermode himself seems uninfluenced by certain original questions:

"[W]hatever we may find to say about the community for which it was originally written (and the evidence will come largely from the gospel itself, in defeating circularity) it is far beyond us to reproduce the tacit understandings that existed between this dead writer and his dead audience. Those accords are lost. We cannot know the original generic set of Mark; and to read it against our own is to read it differently. We have internalized expectations created by kinds of narrative, historical and fictive, and by kinds of poetry, quite unfamiliar to those original readers. We should remember this, and allow our sense of difference to exercise some control over our divinations; but in the end we have to think of the book as a sample of what we take literature to be, and avoid all means by which that confrontation may be prevented." (138)
Is it possible that Kermode's questions are somewhat institutionalized here, as a literary scholar? Why is what we take literature to be the confrontation that must be permitted? Why should the original confrontation of the literature with its readers be passed over? Is it very much less certain to attempt to recreate an historical world than it is to try and wrap one's mind around the present one? Even to accept that an estimation of literature is central, why is our present take more central than any other historical take? Kermode's skepticism toward the historical setting of Mark is unwarranted, and his conclusion that the largest amount of evidence comes directly from the Gospel is neither self-defeating circularity nor does it make that evidence the most revealing. Here is not the place for a lesson in historical backgrounds of the New Testament, and I am not the one to be giving such lessons anyhow, but I am aware enough of the subject to know that a wealth of historical material exists that helps us to identify "an original generic set" for Mark. What I am not attempting here is to paint Kermode as ignorant, fallacious, or uncharitable in his analysis, but what I am attempting is to point out where he is being selective as an interpreter. His interests are more recognizably literary than they are historical, theological, or even cultural. And the history of Biblical studies (especially in the 19th century) I would agree very well warrant the kind of focus Kermode is offering, but not to disillusionment or disavowal of the kinds of questions that have come before. It seems best, at least to my feeble judgment, that it is to the broadest range of lived and living human history which belongs the interpreter's most reasonable controlling context -- and for the particular text, where it originates is that point from which the larger applied interpretation springs forth.

To put it enigmatically: What a text means is more than what it is meaning and a text's meaning is always less than meaningful when it ignores what a text was meant to be.

More simply: The attempt to understand a text's meaning is always more than what present interpreters are saying it means and a text's meaning is always more meaningful when it attempts to consider what that text was intended to be, as well as what is has come to be.

Perhaps I am beating a dead horse, or perhaps what I'm saying is as simple as saying sugar is sweet and should be so. I do look forward to days when my own thinking is more clear, if such days are ahead.

To bring things to a close, it is fitting from where I stand someone who writes to leave the writer with the last word, since he is unable to defend himself or correct understandings that mistake his intentions (can you sense where I stand upon the hermeneutical playing field?):

"What is the interpreter t make of secrecy considered as a property of all narrative, provided it is suitably attended to? Outsiders see but do not perceive. Insiders read and perceive, but always in a different sense. We glimpse the secrecy through the meshes of a text; this is divination, but what is divined is what is visible from our angle. It is a momentary radiance, delusive or not, as in Kafka's parable. When we come to relate that part to the whole, the divined glimmer to the fire we suppose to be its source, we see why Hermes is the patron of so many other trades besides interpretation. There has to be trickery. And we interpret always as transients -- of whom he is also patron -- both in the book and in the world which resembles the book....World and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermeneutic tricks." (144-145)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 5

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 5: What Precisely Are the Facts?

The fifth chapter seeks to treat the Gospel exclusively as historical accounts. It deals primarily with the tension between typology and historical validity, between figura and fact, as Kermode puts it. Here is how he lays it forth:

"[T]he discovery of recondite figurations in history-like narrative is a normal activity of secular criticism. By convention we tend to look for them not in narratives presented as having some transparence upon historical fact, but in fictions that reconcile a mimesis of reality with a more or less elaborate internal structure; but this distinction is more arbitrary than it seems, and figurations, usually of an ideological origin whether acknowledged or no, will be found in history as well as in the history-like. And anyway, if God writes the plot, the potential compatibility of narrative and figura is infinite." (105)

This last observation becomes the standard hermeneutic supposition of Christianity for centuries to come. The fulfillment claims of the Gospels upon Hebrew Scriptures is carried into the interpretive approaches of the early church fathers:

"[T]he earlier texts are held to contain, possibly in a disguised or deceptive form, narrative promises that will later be kept, though perhaps in unexpected ways. [paragraph break] The habit of finding such clues was not confined to the evangelists, and the search continued after their narratives were established and canonized. The same use of types and testimonies persisted: as proofs of divine organization, they were also proofs of the historicity of the narratives." (106)

Kermode remarks on how the extreme forms of christologizing the Old Testament leads to a loss of the OT's own historical character, and though modern assumptions might assume that such typology would invalidate the historicity of the narratives, the opposite occurs within the particular hermeneutic approach to the Bible--the typology confirms the narratives' (Old and New) historicity. Acknowledging this particular stance in the early church (and some interpreters today) Kermode takes his own stance a bit later:

"Yet we have seen that literary forces of the kind that operate in fiction certainly affected the design of the gospel narrative. The recognition of such an influence entails consideration of the degree to which the chronicles is shaped into history by other extraneous forces which may be called theological or ideological, depending on where one stands; whatever we call them these forces must, insofar as they affect what is said and the manner of saying it, assume rhetorical forms." (109)

Kermode spends a few pages discussing some of the passages that have been criticized as historical impossibilities or improbabilities. I will not address them here, though it is important to note that historicist approaches to the Gospels are more likely to discover discrepancies than to highlight harmonies. Ever since the Historical-Critical movement that came out of the 19th century German scholars, history (and especially Biblical History) has been viewed as a mass of discontinuities that only achieve continuity in being narrated, poetized, or otherwise written about.

Kermode finishes out the chapter with a return to the question of fiction and history. He provides a brief description of the nature of historical discourse and fictional discourse (specifically the novel):

"In general, history-writing, even more than fiction, relies on third-person narration. Novels quite often have first-person narrators, but their presence in an historical account gives it a different generic feel -- it becomes a memoir. The advantage of third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an illusion, the effect of a rhetorical device. We cannot escape the conclusion that 'the fact can exist only linguistically, as a term in a discourse,' although 'we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something or other on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural "reality"'." (117)

Whether or not such linguistic skepticism is warranted is most likely to vary on the precision one assumes to exist between description and reality, and wherever one lands may hold only in a particular case under examination. What Kermode points out, or actually, what he describes as the attempts of historians to narrativize factual data into readable accounts is that narratives convince by way of their structure and followability and its ability to reassure its reader of the impartially accurate rendering of reality. All of this to get to the final assertion that historians do not write and readers cannot read without prejudice. Welcome to the world of human nature. And under this view what occurs is that, "as Jean Starobinski neatly puts it, to ignore what is written in favor of what it is written about" (118-119). But Kermode says he wants to flip the priority in his book, which appears to me to be where we are now, where the priority of language over reality is reaching rather disturbing proportions, insofar as my observation and intuition are able to decipher.

And Kermode acknowledges Spinoza's separation of meaning and truth as most influential in the shift of priority. And with it came a new hermeneutics which tried to understand how meaning could be separated from truth and to utilize it methodologically to interpret biblical texts. The advent of "history-likeness" apparently led to some rather illogical conclusions, which Kermode quotes from Herder:

"[H]istory can mean 'the kind of consciousness represented by a specific kind of account...To be account need not be of any specific occurrence that had actually taken place'...What he needed was the right to affirm the factual truth of scripture without having to decide whether its meaning lay in its having happened or merely in its having been written." (120)

Aside from being illogical from a position of epistemological realism (i.e. perception does not determine reality) such conclusions reveal the hermeneutic shift toward a subjective hermeneutics that allows meaning to be made rather than discovered. The Christian should mark well here that if one tosses out the historical validity of the scriptures, one tosses out any objective elements of faith beyond language. The conclusion reduces to the choice of having faith in faith (solipsism) or faith in the words themselves (meaning that is linguistically determinate--"the words mean me") or faith in oneself (meaning that is a subjective creation--"I mean the words"). The separation of truth from meaning leads effectively to the loss of truth; being altogether replaced by whatever meaning is without truth (which to me seems to be nothing at all, or else very little).

Kermode seems to want something more centered than either a logically precise validity or a transient and ephemeral meaning/truth separation. He does recognize the ramifications of the choices:

"All modern interpretation that is not merely an attempt at 're-cognition' involves some effort to divorce meaning and truth. This accounts for both the splendor and the miseries of the art. Insofar as we can treat a text as not referring to what is outside or beyond it, we more easily understand that is has internal relationships independent of the coding procedures by which we may find it transparent upon a known world. We see why it has latent mysteries, intermittent radiances. But in acquiring this privilege, the interpreters lose the possibility of consensus, and of access to a single truth at the heart of the thing. No one, however special his point of vantage, can get past all those doorkeepers into the shrine of the single sense." (123)

But Kermode is certainly of the more modern modes of hermeneutics in the following concluding statement: "The pleasures of interpretation are henceforth linked to loss and disappointment, so that most of us will find the task too hard, or simply repugnant; and then, abandoning meaning, we slip back into the old comfortable fictions of transparency, the single sense, the truth." (123)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 4

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 4: Necessities of Upspringing

Chapter four takes up the topic of character and characterization in narrative (especially its relationship with plot), and how character plays out in hermeneutics. Kermode springboards off of Henry James because James highlights character over plot as his "necessity of upspringing" or, to put it plainly: for James, stories grew out of characters rather than characters out of stories (plot). Kermode notes that the priority of character is a recent development (broadly speaking) of the last 300 years, for it was before that (he traces back to Aristotle, though he could go further back and further East) when plot had priority. Neither is dispensable, which Kermode explicitly points out, though one generally tends to carry the emphasis (more or less throughout) in an overall work.

Kermode's focus on the Gospels in this chapter narrows upon the Last Supper, the Betrayal, and the Arrest--those portions where characters become more conspicuous (Judas Iscariots' betrayal, Peter's denial, and Pilate's posturing all receive attention for their characterization). Kermode revisits the tension between an historicist approach and a formalist approach, and he draws upon Ricoeur's observations that structural analysis out to lead to interpretation rather than to a structuralist analysis. In other words, there is a danger of simply reproducing method or institutional theoretical assumptions and standards in place of a hermeneutic that seeks a more complete understanding of the text in historical context(s). A brief synopsis of the various ways in which characters have been explicated as functional types reveals how thorough structural analysts are in relates (and reduces) character to narrative structure.

Brief aside: I might add here for anyone interested, there is a biblical studies journal devoted to literary and structural approaches to the Bible: Semeia. The journal lives in the borderlands between Biblical Studies and Rhetorical Studies (primarily from literary disciplines, but not without some harmony with communication disciplines).

Kermode adopts a presupposed order to the Gospel accounts which draw upon some undiscovered original work that preceded them all. The order is: Mark, Matthew, Luke using Mark, and John who used an unidentical but similar original. There is a fascinating, though short, discussion of midrash (a subject which I am still getting my feet wet in) : the proposed hermeneutic method of the Gospel writers. I will include it in full here:

"All we are doing is imagining what it was that the evangelists set out to interpret. I say "interpret" because the redaction of an existing narrative was, in these circumstances, a pre-exegetical interpretive act; instead of interpreting by commentary, one does so by a process of augmenting the narrative. It is quite widely agreed that the evangelists used methods continuous with those by which, before the establishment of the canon, ancient texts were revised and adapted to eliminate or make acceptable what had come to be unintelligible or to give offence. The practice is known as midrash; among other things it entailed narrative alterations or interpolations, sometimes very free. They might be made not only in the process of updating texts, but also in translating them into another language, say Greek or Aramaic. The evangelists were perfectly familiar with this practice....[paragraph break] An Old Testament text used to support the veracity of, and given narrative interpretation in, the New Testament is called a testimonium or testimony. A book of testimonies was a collection of Old Testament texts brought together in a notebook for the use of preachers. Some think such books existed, in codex form for ease of reference, before any of the books of the New Testament was written....It is also reasonable to suppose that narrative interpretation of the texts so collected should have had a part in the shaping of the gospel stories, including the Passion narratives. That is to say, parts of the gospel narratives may have been composed as midrashim on testimonies." (81-82)

I've only read bits and pieces on midrashic method and am not up to speed on the scholarly discussions about the Gospels' relationship to Midrash. Kermode remarks that disputes on the relation between gospel and midrash continue to be pursued. I am aware that midrash is not a unified method, but encompasses a wide range of interpretive freedom and constriction. What is most interesting to me is the historical importance of the fact that these writers are using Jewish interpretive and writing methods as opposed to Hellenistic methods. While there may or may not be expansive differences between the two methodologically, there is a foundational difference in the fact that Jewish methodology was institutionally or traditionally subjected to interpreting the Hebrew Bible, with a focus toward relating their present world within its redemptive, covenantal, and progressive history. Later Gentile converts to Christianity were more likely to approach the Hebrew Bible through the revelation of Christ as opposed to approaching Christ as the revelation of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, I suspect that even Jewish converts to Christianity would have subjected their hermeneutic to the authority of the Hebrew Bible (the book of Hebrews is perhaps the primary place where this is seen) whereas Gentile converts would have subjected their hermeneutic to a post-revelatory understanding. Again, it is difficult and dangerous to assume too much discontinuity here, but it seems rather ignorant to assume that Gentilic understandings of the Hebrew Bible would correspond exactly with Jewish converts (even Gentiles under direct apostolic teaching would be encountering a tradition they were largely if not complete ignorant of). I must admit that my suspicious rest almost entirely on intuitive application of the things I have read and conjectures based on my own assumptions about cultural influence on human understanding.

Kermode uses structural forms to identify Judas within narrative structure. He is approaching the gospels from a more fictive stance: "The necessity, in a circumstantial and history-like story, of having a character to perform the Betrayal is obvious enough" (84). Only a bit later Kermode reduces Judas and the disciple characters entirely to an element of narrative progression: "So Betrayal becomes Judas. In the fully formed narrative the scheme is more complicated, for all the Twelve, and especially Peter, are Betrayers and Deserters (prodotes, a traitor, one who abandons in danger), and this fact has to be got into the narrative" (85). Conservatively taken, Kermode's observations highlight the effect of narrative structuring upon the historical material the Gospels are representing. More radically, Kermode's observations could be taken as the Gospel writer's rhetorical/poetic figurations of more benign historical events. Again, we come up against the question of what hermeneutic stance the gospel writers took: subjected more to historical validity or to rhetorical coherence. And there is the question of whether the two even ought to be understood as mutually exclusive (i.e. fact is "stranger," that is, more intriguing, than fiction; or conversely, fiction that is "true to life"). It may be that where one falls on either side or somewhere inbetween rests, however finally, on the assumptions or presuppositional stance of the analyst--even after rigorous compilation and study of the historical evidence.

Another interesting discussion that Kermode develops is the difference between codex and roll (or scroll). A codex was a page which could hold writing on both sides and bound as a book, and could be opened to any page. A roll or scoll could only have writing on one side and had to be unrolled entirely to read end portions of a work. When the change-over from scroll to codex was accomplished is up for debate, but Kermode seems to prefer an earlier change for his purposes in analyzing Mark: "Just how early they made the change [from roll to codex] is, as I have said, debated; but it is at least possible that Mark first circulated in codex" (88-89). Kermode makes the argument that the change from roll to codex is significant: "The transfer of the Hebrew scriptures to Greek codices enacts an appropriation of those writings for Christian purposes. It made possible the use of the Jewish account for the peculiar purpose of establishing the validity of the Christian version not by, or not only by, reference to the Law and the Prophets, but also by reference to the testimonies, scattered apparently at random in the ancient texts, and having occult senses that now emerged" (89). The attachment of such import to a technological development in literacy is not new (Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan are two who have done much in that arena), though my own present suspicion is that the importance of such changes are more likely to have their effect over a broader period of time rather than in a brief historical moment. Kermode may fall to close toward arguing a king of technological determinism in the change from roll to codex. The differences between Hellenistic culture (specifically Roman in this context) and Near Eastern culture (specifically Jewish in this context) seem more influential than the roll/codex technological development.

The remainder of the chapter discusses the various narrative and character differences between the Gospels and the later historical choices made by interpreters who desired to speculate about the characters of Judas and Pilate and their peculiar relations within the broader story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Kermode summarizes the important point of his chapter quite explicitly:

"The matter of this chapter is really quite simple. Of an agent there is nothing to be said except that he performs a function: Betrayal, Judgment. When the agent becomes a kind of person, all is changed. It takes very little to make a character: a few indications of idiosyncrasy, of deviation from type, are enough, for our practiced eyes will make up the larger patterns of which such indications can be read as parts." (98)

In my previous studies of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling there is clear indication of this highlighting and focus on character rather than role. Abraham is the Knight of Faith, a character role in Kierkegaard's narratival argument against Hegelian philosophy, but Abraham within the narrative of Genesis, and even with the Akedah, is not taken up as a role in the narrative, but as a character of specific and integral interest. Abraham is not the father of Judaism or Covenant or even God's chosen, but he is the individual relating to the Absolute. Kierkegaard's hermeneutic approach to the Akedah and to Abraham reveal the particular priority of character over plot. To this, perhaps Kermode might say:

"The key to all this development -- from fable to written story, from story to character, from character to more story -- is interpretation....But the new narrative itself generates character, and the characters generate new narrative beyond any immediate need, though the new narrative again takes its form from those more ancient texts in the first part of the book. It is only when the canon is closed that the work of interpretation becomes the work of exegesis, and even that, as we know, can be pretty inventive." (98-99)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 3

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 3: The Man in the Macintosh, the Boy in the Shirt

The third chapter of Kermode's book compares an obscure character in James Joyce's Ulysses (Macintosh) and an obscure character in Mark's Gospel (the young man who shed his clothing). The central question under question seems to be about why it is that we (human beings) are compelled to make sense of the obscurities, to invest them (whether through recognitive discovery or cognitive imputation) with meaning. Kermode sets it up this way:

"Another view is that MacIntosh is absolutely gratuitous and fortuitous, a mere disturbance of the surface of the narrative. So Robert M. Adams, who says that Joyce is just playing with our 'unfulfilled curiosity'....The real question is, why do we want to solve it anyway? Why does the view of Adams commend itself to us not at once, not as intuitively right, but as somehow more surprising and recondite than the attempts to make sense of MacIntosh? Why, in fact, does it require a more strenuous effort to believe that a narrative lacks coherence than to believe that somehow, if we could only find out, it doesn't." (52-53)

Kermode's initial preliminary answer: "[W]ithin a text no part is less privileged than the other parts. All may receive the same quality and manner of attention; to prevent this one would need to use metatextual indicators (typographical variation, for example) and there are no such indicators in the present instance." (53)

He goes on to discuss the various approaches to such "fractures" in a text's coherent surface, which fall into the extremes: one of trying to reconcile into coherence everything in a text and the other of trying to see the fractures as the only meaningful elements meant to allow for the most interpretive freedom. And overarching these is the institutional power that has set and solidified the standards for "normal" research regarding Joyce in particular and literary studies in general.

From here it is on to the Mark text where Kermode revisits a fundamental hermeneutic principle: "[W]here enigmas are credibly thought to exist in a text, it is virtually impossible to maintain that some parts of it are certainly not enigmatic. This is a principle important to the history of interpretation, and it was by carefully violating it with his fractured-surface theory that Robert Adams upset people." (57)

Kermode then discusses two interpretations of the difficult passage, one of which takes its departure from historiographical materials and the other which takes its departure from literary critical materials. Kermode indicates that the "establishment" and/or "institution" (I'm guess this must mean the established consensus of Biblical Studies scholars?) rejected the literary interpretation because it was too literary; running dangerously close to making Mark out to be more artistically fictive than transparently historical.

Then the chapter returns to the question of the desire for coherence and the fact that some see it as occurring as a result of the way language is learned and linked syntactically and redundantly and orally. Others prefer to see deception and disappointment as more honest encounters with narrative. The former stance is more prevalent of course, in the very least because it is more natural, simple, and satisfying--even when a text seems overtly clumsy or ill constructed for coherence.

The final portion of the chapter is devoted to the disputed ending of Mark's Gospel, where the more ancient (typically taken as more reliable) manuscripts stop at 16:8 whereas the less ancient manuscripts have either parts or all of vv. 9-20. The text is more enigmatic if it ends at v. 8 "for they were afraid" and so Kermode investigates the ramifications of the dual possibilities. One of the more interesting comments is:

"Now all interpretation proceeds from prejudice, and without prejudice there can be no interpretation; but this is to use an institutional prejudice (Form-criticism) in order to disarm exegesis founded on more interesting personal preferences. If it comes to a choice between saying Mark is original and upholding 'the whole method of form-criticism' the judgment is unhesitating: Mark is not original." (68)

Kermode will obviously privilege the more literary stance, which takes Mark as the singular constructor of the Gospel we have for the most part, finally intact. But it is at the end of the chapter where Kermode brings in the matter of fore-understanding, which is the most applicable commentary the chapter contributes to the topic of hermeneutics:

"Even at the level of the sentence we have some ability to understand a statement before we have heard it all, or at any rate to follow it with a decent provisional sense of its outcome; and we can do this only because we bring to our interpretation of the sentence a pre-understanding of its totality. We may be wrong on detail, but not, as a rule, wholly wrong; there may be some unforeseen peripeteia or irony, but the effect even of that would depend upon our having had this prior provisional understanding. We must sense the genre of the utterance. [paragraph break] Fore-understanding is made possible by a measure of redundancy in the message which restricts, in whatever degree, the possible range of its sense. Some theorists, mostly French, hold that a fictive mark or reference inevitably pre-exists the determination of a structure; this idea is not so remote from Vorverstandnis [fore-understanding] as it may sound, but it is so stated as to entitle the theorist to complain that such a center must inevitably have an ideological bearing." (70-71)

Kermode points out, and I would tend to agree, that ideological and institutional constraints are inevitable. I would add that the fuzziness of our understandings of the origins of language and narrative preclude us from deciding once-for-all whether ideology precedes or follows language formation, construction, and intention. Yet it is clear that there is no escaping ideological influence in our present and recorded history of language use and interpretation. And as Kermode remarks, it is the institutional and ideological nature of hermeneutics that allows for outsiders to produce "radiant" (Kermode's term) and/or radical interpretations. It remains, and may always remain, that hermeneutics seeks out and calls forth coherence from a text (to whatever degree and for whatever moment in time and space).

Monday, January 23, 2006

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 2

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "The Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 2: Hoti's Business: Why Are Narratives Obscure?

Kermode discusses the nature of parables in the Gospels. There are some interesting observations on hermeneutics and narratives which I will post and comments on below.

"[I]nterpreters, often quite rightly, tend to see the Problems of Interpretation. The sense of the parable, on the view just stated, must be this: being an insider is only a more elaborate way of being kept outside. This interpretation maintains that interpretation, though a proper and interesting activity, is bound to fail; it is an intrusion always, and always unsuccessful." (27)

Here we have again the expression of hermeneutics that seems to fascinate its more contemporary theorists--that interpretation folds out as well as enfolds its own attempts to understand a text's meaning. There seems to be a desire for some sort of absolute closure, knowing all the while that such closure is impossible in any circumstance of language. What exactly is to be gained or lost from exalting the failures and gaps?

Kermode also gets into a discussion about the word choice of Mark in contrast to that of Matthew (which is taken to be a later Gospel that drew upon Mark's Gospel). Again, the central text is Mark 4:11-12 (RSV):

"so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear but not understand, lest at any time they should turn, and their sins be forgiven."

The "so that" in Mark is "hina" (a word that also translates "in order that") and in Matthew is "hoti" which is "because." The argument makes interesting distinctions and distinguishing points between Mark's and Matthew's accounts of the phrase (which is a allusion/quote from Isaiah). His conclusion on the accounts:

"Each of them makes the parable a bit like a riddle in a folktale, where to get the answer wrong means perdition; but hina and hoti distinguish them. One says the stories are obscure on purpose to damn the outsiders; the other, even if we state it in the toughest form the language will support, says that they are not necessarily impenetrable, but that the outsiders, being what they are, will misunderstand them anyway." (32)

And what is Kermode's intepretation of Mark's use "hina" supposed to expose? According to Kermode: "My present point is simple enough: Mark is a strong witness to the enigmatic and exclusive character of narrative, to its property of banishing interpreters from its secret places." (33-34)

The immediately following discussion highlights some examples of anagogic (spiritualized) intepretations of the parable of the Good Samartian by the early church fathers and medievals (such as Irenaeus and Augustine). These early Christians have a hermeneutic that reads redemptive history into the characters, the objects, and the narrative elements of the parable. It was Luther who rejected the analogical interpretations and stood as a first step in the movement toward what Kermode refers to as the "era of 'scientific' intepretation." Kermode reveals that sometimes the conclusions of the scientific methodology approaches similarity with the analogical, while at other times it differs greatly (38-39).

There is an especially good section that follows that I want to include in its entirety because it discusses various hermeneutic theoretical stances:

"However, there is a fashion still more recent, which revives, in its own way, the notion that the sense of the text is inexhaustibly occult, and accessible in a different form to each and every intepreter. The object of this kind of interpretation is no longer 'scientific'; one does not try, like Jeremias, to state what the narrative meant in its original, or in any later setting; one does not try to 're-cognize' it, as the more conservative hermeneutical theorists say one should. Rather one assumes, to quote an opponent of this school, that 'the meaning of a text goes beyond its author not sometimes but always' and that 'one understands differently when one understands at all.' The object of interpretation is now sometimes said to be to retrieve, if necessary by benign violence, what is called the original event of disclosure. This is the language of Heidegger; he takes the Greek word for 'truth,' aletheia, in its etymological sense, 'that which is revealed or disclosed, does not remain concealed.' Every hermeneutic encounter with a text is an encounter with Being as disclosed in it. For Heidegger indeed, it is the very fact that one is outside that makes possible the revelation of truth or meaning; being inside is like being in Plato's cave. [paragraph break] Every such hermeneutic encounter is still, in a measure, historically conditioned, though now that limitation is no longer thought of just as a limitation -- it is the prerequisite of interpretation, ech act of which is unique, one man on one stool, so to speak, seeing what no power can withhold from him, his glimpse of the radiance, his share of what is sometimes called the 'hermeneutic potential' of a text." (39-40)

You can spot the clear distinctions between how the more modern and contemporary hermeneutics are alike analogical and anagogic interpretations in the liberty they take with them, but unlike the older formulations, the modern hermeneutic theory is not tied to a tradition, or what Kermode might call an institution, but rather, the only strings attached are that the revelation be persuasive and enlightening enough to those it is offerred up to. Intellectual stimulation (however euphoric or epiphanic) seems to be the organizing principle of critical judgments. Kermode continues by addressing the arguments and evaluations that followers of the modern hermeneutic offer:

"Now that which requires to be disclosed must first have been covered, and this view of interpretation certainly implies that the sense of the parable is an occult sense. Its defenders like to say not that the interpreter illumines the text, but that the text illumines the interpreter, like a radiance [shades of Mailloux's discussion a couple of posts back come to mind here do they not?]." (40)

Strangely enough (or so it seems to me) Kermode traces this newer hermeneutic back to the Protestant tradition that rejected the institutionalized traditions of Catholicism. But more than as a seedling, Kermode sees that tradition as ultimately doomed to passing, because of the indistinguishability between secular and sacred texts that results from it. The above recognition of the radicalizing independence (and determinate principle of intellectual stimulation) of the newer hermeneutic is what Kermode sees emerging from Protestants and convering in the German idealists:

"The tradition is that of a productive encounter between the text and the reader, illuminated by a peculiar grace or, in more secular terms, a divinatory genuis, as far as possible independent of institutional or historical control. That encounter is the main concern not only of modern German hermeneutics but also, though their ways are different, of its French rivals." (40)

And from there Kermode returns to the obscurity of all narrative and the concealing and revealing operatives at work in every interpretation.

Narrative and the Secrecy of Hermeneutics Part 1

Summary and Review of Frank Kermode's "Genesis of Secrecy"

Chapter 1: Carnal and Spiritual Senses

"Hermes is cunning, and occasionally violent: a trickster, a robber. So it is not surprising that he is also the patron of interpreters." (1)

Interpretation, Kermode explains, is an endeavor that combines secrecy and violence, hardly motives or actions that would be considered honorable, much less ethical on the surface. But that one of the major points of Kermode's book, interpretation doesn't exist on the surface, but on the layers of meaning that are not clearly visible in the "plain text." So there is, in the act of interpretation, an assumption that what is there in the writing is not all that is there, is not all the author communicated (intentionally or otherwise), is not all that is meaningful (and has almost always a fuller meaning). A second point that Kermode makes in the opening chapter is that interpretation usually proceeds from an institutional foundation, i.e. an educational influence precedes and envelopes the interpreter's work:

"Interpreters usually belond to an institution...and as members they enjoy certain privileges and sufer certain constraints. Perhaps the most important of these are the right to affirm, and the obligation to accept, the superiority of the latent over manifest sense." (2)

Kermode's books proceeds inductively, often focusing on a particular point, passage, or question and expanding outward where his sense and knowledge allow. The passage he springboard from in the opening chapter is Mark 4:11-12 (RSV)--"To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not percieve, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." He endeavors to work with the Gospels generally and Mark specifically. Those seeking a theology will be dissapointed, but those seeking a careful consideration of the narrative activity and interpretive possibilities will find much on which to think.

The latter portion of chapter one is Kermode's interpretation of "Party Going," a novel by Henry Green. He has several observation on hermeneutics that are good to indicate: "Theory can obscure as well as facilitate" (5). "[T]he fact is that without some fore-understanding of the whole we can make no sense of the part; and our fore-understanding of the whole is largely constructed from our present understanding of the part" (5).

The first point may seem common sense (especially to anyone who has read literary, rhetorcal, or philosophical theories) but to keep it in the forefront of one's mind ought to be a corrective from overtheorizing a text or adopting the "cookie-cutting" approach that maps theory onto a text using the ambiguities and gaps inherent in all language to squeeze past critical apprehension at tension points where theory does its own violence on a text. The second observation is even more important for hermeneutic considerations. That a reader/interpreter is always anticipating a whole when examing or passing through the parts is inevitable--readers of books as well as listeners in conversation are always attempting to "make sense" of the message, to place it generally and specifically, to complete the narrative. The parts that garner interest or import always maintain an element of subjectivity and objectivity, which is the fore-understanding Kermode indicates.

"Once free of the constraints of the simply primary sense, we begin to seize on those more interesting -- let us say spiritual -- senses that failed to manifest themselves in the course of a, let us say, carnal reading." (9)
"Now interpretation abhors the random, which is one reason why, in the most modern school of criticism, it has become a dirty word, a term of censure. Interpretation will seek relations..." (9)

"This kind of reading, originating within the horizon of a particular period, cannot be disallowed; but it cannot, either, disqualify others which do not so originate, are differently focused, yet can be established as legitimate and interesting (which is practically the same thing as "institutionally acceptible"). Any one such focus is, of course, chosen at the expense of others, and is bound to ignore much of the information offered by the text..." (12)
"Yet all narratives are capable of darkness; the oracular is always there or thereabouts, accessible if only by a sensory failure; and much writing we think of as peculiarly modern is in part a rediscovery of the oracular, and sometimes an exploitation of sensory failure." (15)

The statements above reveal, more or less explicitly, Kermode's committments to a hermeneutics of secrecy, a stance toward narrative that maintains an inevitable frustration for interpretation, which is what allows interpretation to continue. It is intellectual play on an intellectual playing field, but for Kermode, the game never ceases, though it may rest or gather somewhere for a time.

The final portion of chapter one outlines six rules and cautions for approaching the Gospels and specifically Mark:

1. The book must be assured to have sufficient value, i.e. a canonical status
2. Interpretation proceeds on two levels--the outside, carnal, blatant, literal and the inside, spiritual, violent, cunning.
3. There is a moment of interpretation; a choice to make one part of the whole its centerpiece, its "impression-point around which the whole gestalt must be articulated" (16).
4. Divination requires explanation in relation to the larger whole of the text and a context.
5. Inadequacy or incompleteness of previous interpretation must be assumed (including the inadequacy and incompleteness of the author's own understanding of the text) for interpretation to proceed with novelty.
6. All texts have constraints that limit interpretations, first of which is genre. Constraints are ideological, but also necessary and inevitable.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Mailloux's Rhetorical Power

In the first chapter of his book "Rhetorical Power," Steven Mailloux takes up the discussion of hermeneutics (interpretation). He separates approaches into two camps: textual realism and readerly idealism. The former situates textual meaning outside of interpretation, either in the text (formalism), in the author (intentionalism), or in language itself (structuralism) and argues that "meanings are discovered, not created" (Mailloux 5). The latter situates textual meaning inside interpretation, either in the individual reader (reader-response) or in intersubjective conventions (a host of approaches fit into this realm) and argues that "interpretation always creates the signifying text, that meaning is made, not found" (Mailloux 5).

Mailloux goes on to discuss the logical and theoretical problems that encompass both of these approaches and subsequent approaches that try and marry or harmonize the two. The realist approach is clearly foundational in nature and holds to an essentialist epistemology that would hold that some basic inherent features inhere hermeneutics. The idealist approach is indeterminate, but maintains certain arbitrary, but functional deliniations. The middling positions, according to Mailloux, fluctuate between the other positions depending on where their arguments run into complications.

The discussion of context and meaning is perhaps where both positions ultimately run into similar problems. For the realist, the issue of context is obvious, for interpretation requires a bounded arena for meaning to be discovered whereas for the idealist interpretation is unbounded. However, the idealist needs contexts in order to have individual intepretations (subjectivity is not autonomous, but is still situated in a world of cause/effect influences) and intersubjective conventions.

Ultimately, it seems that the problem of meaning is the problem of knowledge--the incomplete nature of human cognition that is incapable of accounting for all possible and all actual causes, effects, and their relationships requires that gaps, guesses, and presuppositional boundaries be accepted. The result is that presuppositions are either unstated or incompletely addressed (since comprehensive explanation would require all possible and actual relationships to be explicated). Thus, both positions run into the problem of the absolute--i.e. without an absolute account of all actual and possible relations, there is always the possibility that the argument is alterable and therefore mistaken.

The idealist position argues that meaning is bound by contexts, but that contexts are boundless (i.e.--they are not absolutely known or knowable and are thus subject to expansion, reduction; in short, change). All conclusions are thus provisional. Contrary to what Mailloux seems to indicate as the realist position, I do not think that realism must deny provisionality insofar as they accept the presuppositional nature of human intellection. Mailloux rejects a Hermeneutic Theory, and by capitalizing the "T" I can only assume that he is rejecting theory that considers itself the final and unassailable (i.e.--free from counter-argument) word on how interpretation proceeds, exists, and ought to be approached.

That is where rhetoric comes in, for rhetoric is that discipline and practice that concerns itself with the probable rather than the absolute. He disavows a rhetorical hermeneutics that would attempt to construct a new generalized account of interpretation, but rather that it should be "therapeutic," which I can assume would mean that it would be persuasive toward whatever audience it is directed. He argues that rhetorical hermeneutics would focus on the history of interpretive practices: "Any thick rhetorical analysis of interpretation must therefore describe this tradition of discursive practices in which acts of interpretive persuasion are embedded" (Mailloux 17).

The problem I see, if indeed it is a problem, is that by historicisng the critical apparatus (hermeneutics now focuses on methods of interpretation in historical "contexts" as part of the method of understanding meaning) one does not eliminate the problem of context, but simply adds an additional element that requires argumentative boundaries and presuppositions. Let's say I may an argument about a discursive practice of 19th century literary academics. There is no way that I can avoid the problem of the absolute here, since I cannot possibly gather all necessary elements for what literary academics were doing "discursively" or even that all of them could be lumped into a singular "discursive practice." If I argue for several, then how many? And how do I reconcile inconsistencies in those several? The same problems that occur in defining contexts regarding the works themselves occurs in attempting to define the methods by which people have approached those works in order to understand them.

Rhetorical Hermeneutics in Mailloux's expression does not reconcile or avoid the troublesome issues that he brings up with regard to realist and idealist positions. Rather, it seems to add an additional element of consideration for the ongoing argument between the two positions. Both sides are now invited to engage the historiographical problems that arise from arguing about discursive pratices over time. But as I see it, to deny ANY foundation or essential position is to destroy the possibility of rhetoric and exchange, since the absence of foundations means that talking past one another is the norm rather than the exception. Why? The lack of common theoretical presuppositions means that positions become incommensurale.

I do not think that foundationalism or essentialism must necessarily deny the provisionality of Theory or rest outside of probability (or what I would call "good faith" conclusions). The problem with idealist positions that argue for "boundless" context or meaning is that they are just as incapable of making an absolute accounting (what they say realists always run into) of all actualities and possibilities in order to conclude that context really is "boundless." The best they can do is argue that contexts are most-nearly-boundless or almost-entirely-arbitrary, which is to make a probability claim, the same as the foundationalist.

Thus, if Mailloux is trying to stir the pot to be more sensitive toward rhetorical influences upon realist and idealist formulations of hermeneutics, then I can side with such concern and agree that some kind of historicizing hermeneutics is a must. Context, however ethereal theoretically, is a practical necessity. Including historical context of rhetorical practices and understandings is also indispensible for those who would attempt to understand the meaning of a message.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Hebrew Rhetoric?

One of the recurrent questions that I plan on coming back to periodically is the discussion of Hebrew Rhetoric. Clearly the Hebrew Scriptures reveal rhetorical devices, but is it valid to presume that the rhetorical forms were taught or handed down through oral "prophetic" schools or "scribal" traditions, or something like that. It is clear that unlike the Greeks, the Hebrews did not record any written (that I know of) treatises or handbooks about rhetoric. However, the patterns of the Ancient Near Eastern text that we do have reveal surprisingly similar forms of writing and style, yet with significant (in my opinion) variations within the Hebrew Scriptures. Clearly, "Greek" Rhetoric, or what might be better termed Athenian Rhetoric was inseparably linked to the philosophical underpinnings of those who taught. The rhetoric of the sophists clearly differed from the rhetoric of Isocrates, which in turn differed from the rhetoric of Plato (insofar as one takes the Phaedrus literally). It may be obvious to assume that the religious, cultural, and archaeological variances between the ANE and Mediterranean world play a role in how "rhetoric" (something like "the artful use of language") would be understood and taught.

I am presently reading a book about Judaism in the time of Jesus. It is less scholarly than I would have preferred, but it does contain some interesting items concerning Second Temple Judaism that I have not been exposed to. The author (Wylen) is a Rabbi, and comes from an explicitly "historical" (what I would call historical-critical) perspective as opposed to a theological, religious, or variously other styled hermeneutic. I'm 2/3 of the way through the book and the only looming annoyance I have is the seemingly arbitrary way he treats the "silences" and "evidence." Several times he has made sweeping conclusions on one side of an issue (either silence or scanty evidence) only to come down on the other side on a separate issue of equivalent support. Well, I suppose another annoyance is the frequency with which he concludes with "nothing more can be known" or "we can never know" statements, which are clearly overemphasized. The wealth of archaeological material that has yet to be translated from the ANE not to mention the number of dig sites that have not been fully excavated make it very likely that new textual or non-textual fragmentary (or even complete) evidence will be uncovered that will break new ground in Biblical studies. The field seems ever in flux, at least from my exposure to the literature. One of the conclusions that I find myself most sympathetic toward is the notion that Second Temple Judaism and early CE/AD Christianity do not develop upon a direct line from the OT/Hebrew Bible. I would be more conservative in my dating that Wylen, but the Intertestamental/Second Temple Period between the OT/Hebrew Bible and the NT/Rabbinic writings is significant and perhaps under emphasized by theologians in Christian and Jewish circles (at least outside of academia).

Work on Plato's Laws has come to a halt due to family visiting and a wedding, but I am hoping to post my thoughts on its comparison to Plato's Republic when I get back on the stick. Any suggestions about the organization of my posts is welcome, since this one in particular has been "off the cuff" "stream of consciousness" and "on the fly."