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Postmodernism - Part II

Perhaps the most extensive interaction with and response to postmodernist reader-response criticism and the principles of deconstruction is Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s book, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 496 pp. What follows is a brief summary of Vanhoozer’s conclusions.

The question that Vanhoozer seeks to answer is this: “Is there something in the text [any text, whether the Bible or a piece of secular literature] that reflects a reality independent of the reader’s interpretive activity, or does the text only reflect the reality of the reader?” (15) Is there something in the text not of the reader’s own making? Is meaning fixed by a text, that is to say, by its author, or is it “free-floating, varying from reader to reader” (26).

Vanhoozer’s position is that because texts have authors they don’t mean just anything. The author’s will acts as a control on interpretation. “Thanks to an author’s willing this rather than that, we can say that there is a definite meaning in texts prior to reading and interpretation” (47). This is called hermeneutical realism:

“The ‘hermeneutic realist’ holds that there is something prior to interpretation, something ‘there’ in the text, which can be known and to which the interpreter is accountable. By contrast the hermeneutic nonrealist . . . denies that meaning precedes interpretive activity; the truth of an interpretation depends on the response of the reader. The hermeneutic debate over meaning thus parallels its counterpart in metaphysics; the metaphysical nonrealist denies that there is a mind-independent reality to which our true descriptions must correspond. The nonrealist maintains that the world (or the meaning of a text) is a construct of the mind” (26).

Realism is “the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind-independent.” Hermeneutical realism believes meaning to be “prior to and independent of the process of interpretation” (48). According to the non-realist, nothing is naturally given, everything is “culturally graven” (57).

The issue is whether there is an abiding “truth”, objective and transcendent, to which our interpretations might correspond. Conservative reader response critics say the text invites the reader to participate in the construal of its meaning: it leaves gaps and blanks to be filled in by the interpreter. Thus the reader in effect becomes a writer. Still, though, conservatives insist that interpretations are constrained by the text. Radical reader-response critics insist that the reader is not constrained by anything other than his own interpretive needs, desires, and cultural context.

Let us note several principal characteristics of postmodern deconstructionism identified by Vanhoozer:

(1) If philosophical postmodernism = incredulity toward metanarratives, postmodern literary deconstruction = incredulity toward meaning.

(2) The enemy of deconstruction is logocentrism. “Logocentrism is the belief that there is some stable point outside language – reason, revelation, Platonic Ideas – from which one can ensure that one’s words, as well as the whole system of distinctions that order our experience, correspond to the world. It is the desire for a center, for a point of reference, for an ultimate origin – anything on which we can non-arbitrarily hang our beliefs and values. In short, logocentrism stands for the fundamental presupposition that it is possible to speak truly: that our talk will be about reality, and not merely talk about talk” (53).

(3) Jacques Derrida is motivated by his alarm and concern over the use of language to justify power and oppression. He insists that the belief that one has reached the meaning of a text provides an excuse for condemning and oppressing those with whom you disagree and regarding them as fools and unenlightened. The postmodernist is suspicious that “interpretation is merely a sophisticated cover for an individual’s or a community’s will to power” (150). All interpretations or claims about the meaning of texts are “actually covert strategies for pursuing one interest to the exclusion of others” (156). The aim of interpretation is thus not to get at the author’s meaning but to undo and deconstruct the privileged hierarchies of power who construct texts in order to oppress and exclude those who disagree with them.

(4) As Stanley Fish notes, there is no objective, disinterested, single, correct interpretation of a text, only differing ways of “using” it. Interpretation is in effect a hostile act in which the interpreter victimizes the text. According to Fish, the only check or constraint on an individual reader is her/his community.

(5) For postmodernism, reading has less to do with comprehending and more with conquering the other. “The commentator becomes a kind of exegetical conquistador, interpretation the process of ideological colonization. If this is what interpretation truly is, one can begin to sympathize with the political motivation behind much deconstructive criticism. At its best, deconstruction is a strategy for undoing privileged hierarchies – linguistic and social, philosophical and theological – a way of releasing the ‘other’ from its ideological bondage to an interpretive community” (382).

(6) Can we know something other than ourselves when we peer into a text? Postmodern deconstructionists say no. For postmodernism, interpretation is not a discovery by a reader of something in a text but is a way of referring to what the reader himself makes of the text.

(7) Postmodernists say that meaning is to be found in the dynamic experience of reading but not in the text itself. The reader is always situated in a particular interpretive community and historical context, together with its multitude of needs and prejudices, that dictate how any particular text will be read. The “authorizing agency” of any interpretation is not the author, nor the text, nor even the individual reader, but only the interpretive community. “What were formerly considered ‘facts’ about the text can now be seen to be the results of reading texts in ways that reflect those values that a particular interpretive community holds in high esteem. There is therefore no single correct interpretation, no ‘real meaning’ in a text, only ‘ways of reading’ that are extensions of a community’s values and interests” (56).

(8) No author is the lord of his text. The intentions, motives, goals, aims, efforts of a particular author are not sufficient to ground its meaning. What any author has written is the voice not of himself but of all the teachers and texts that have had an impact on him.

(9) Derrida declared: “There is nothing outside the text”. What he denies by this, explains Vanhoozer, “is “that there is any presence, any kind of being or determinate reality outside the play of signs. There is no original ground or ‘home’ of meaning, nothing beyond particular and contingent language systems, and therefore nothing to keep meaning centered, stable, and determinate” (63).

(10) Contrast Derrida to Hirsch. Hirsch distinguishes “meaning” from “significance” – Meaning is internal to the text-in-itself; significance describes the external relation a text’s meaning has to something else. Significance is always meaning-to, never meaning-in. Thus the meaning of a text is unchanging, but its significance is inexhaustible.

(11) Deconstructionists affirm iterability = non-identical repetition. What one hears in a different context may not be what the author intended to say. “No amount of authorial intention can prevent this ‘contextual drift.’ Iterability undoes intentionality” (79).

(12) For the deconstructionist, the author’s intended meaning is simply the name you give for the interpretation you like most and the one that serves your interests most effectively.

(13) Derrida opposes “totalizing,” i.e., the metaphysical impulse to achieve a unified perspective – “to gain mastery over something by reducing it to the size of something one can grasp” (80).

(14) Neither texts nor their authors have aims, only uses. The reader’s interpretation does not conform to textual intentions; rather textual intentions conform to the reader’s interpretation. The text is partially constituted by how we interpret it.

(15) Meaning has no real existence outside of its realization in the mind of a reader. Interpretation is more creation than discovery. Meaning is purely a function of who and where the reader is and what the reader wants. Therefore, deconstructionists insist that “meaning” refers “not to something ‘in’ texts but rather to what happens in the experience of reading” (158).

(16) For deconstructionists “the ‘best reading is the one that challenges and overturns the dominant ideology by exposing and dismantling it, even if that means reading against the apparent sense of the text” (167). Thus “what counts ethically is whether one’s interpretation has a liberating effect on the reader’s present context” (167).

(17) “Meaning for Fish is determinate only in the sense that readers always read within particular contexts with specific interpretive rules. In short, while texts may be indeterminate, social contexts are surely not. If postmodernity stands for anything, it is for the demise of a universal standpoint and the subsequent celebration of the diverse particular perspectives from which we view the world, each other, and our texts. Understanding for postmoderns is always contextual, never universal. Postmodernity does not mean the end of all authority, however, only of universal norms; local norms remain in force. Interpretation is always ‘from below,’ shaped by the reader’s contextually conditioned context and regulated by the authority of community-based norms. Hence, if interpretation is indeed a form of power reading, it remains to be seen whose power it is and whether its force is liberating. . . . [P]ostmoderns see truth as a rhetorical device used by the strong to justify their power over the weak. This leads us to a crucial problem for the postmodern critic: To what do we appeal when the context rather than the text is the oppressor? Have the postmodern prophets led us out of the captivity to canon only to enslave us to the dominant interests of the interpretive community?” (168).

(18) “What saves Fish’s reader-based hermeneutics from relativism is his insistence that readers make sense together. The facts are facts by virtue of institutional agreement” (169).

(19) For feminist readers, “biblical interpretation is authoritative only when it releases the oppressed and engenders human freedom” (182).

(20) “For Fish, literary knowledge is a matter of community consensus. The ‘correct’ interpretation is the interpretation we are warranted to assert in light of our community’s interpretive practices and procedures. There are different interpretations of the same text because it is read by different interpretive communities. This is not a silly but a sophisticated relativism – a cultural relativism. There are standards in interpretation on this view, but they are neither universal nor determined by the text” (296). For Fish “the reader’s response is not to the meaning: it is the meaning” (393).

Vanhoozer identifies four types or ways of reading a text:

1)            Inactive reading – little reader response; they read only for the plot or the point. Stays on level of explanation and rarely gets to appropriation.

2)            Reactive reading – “Reactive readers read against the text or against the history of its interpretation. They are responding, but not to the text as such but to the ways in which texts and interpretations have served the ideological interests of class, gender, race, or religion. Reactive readers may even rebel against the text in the name of social justice. The rebellious reader refuses to accept meanings or interpretations that serve a socio-political interest that oppresses others” (396).

3)            Hyperactive reading – whereas both inactive and reactive readers are hermeneutic realists, believing that there is a meaning in the text, hyperactive readers are non-realists. “Their burden is to create meaning, as much meaning as possible perhaps, in order to realize the full potential not only of the text but also of the reader. On this view, the reader’s response is what interpretation is largely about. There is no transcendent logos that indwells the text; the text is simply a pretext for an endless series of decodings in and for different contexts” (396).

4)            Proactive reading – takes an initiative on behalf of the text, being accountable to it.

Again, by way of brief response, several things may be said. First, if nothing specific is called for in a text, i.e., if the author and his/her intent are dead, there is nothing to which the reader can be held accountable. Likewise,

“If meaning is not really ‘there’ before the reader makes it, then it is difficult to see how texts can ever challenge or transform their readers? . . . Bereft of authors or authority, texts become entirely subject to the play of interpretive interests and lose the possibility of substantially modifying or directing those interests” (165).

On the other hand, Vanhoozer insists that

“meaning is ‘there,’ inscribed in the text, prior to and independent of reading or interpretation, in much the same way that human actions are what they are prior to the investigative and interpretive work of the historian. To deny this would be to deny the reality of the past. . . . The interpreter only recognizes the action for what it is. If meaning were a function of how readers respond to texts, then texts could never be misunderstood, and there would never be such a thing as false interpretation. It follows from hermeneutical realism, however, that it is possible to misinterpret” (218).

As over against the hermeneutic non-realism of deconstructionists, “hermeneutic realism claims that the author’s intended meaning is ‘there,’ enacted in the text. Hermeneutic rationality maintains that the form and content of a communicative act – what is said and what it is about – can be known with relative adequacy” (V, 367).

What motivates postmodern deconstructionists? Says Vanhoozer:

“That meaning is not ‘really’ there, but only an imposition of institutional ideologies and practices, is a liberating insight for the postmodernist; for if nothing is really there, then nothing can make a claim on my life. Must we say, amending Derrida, that there is nothing outside oneself? This does seem to be the logic behind much postmodern thought. An independent reality with its own intrinsic order would limit my creativity and call my freedom into question” (394).