Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lettres de Cachet by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault

With murky historical origins, the lettre de cache (often mistakenly glossed as “poison-pen letters’) were letters addressed to the king, letters that invoked his absolute power to intervene in problems of marital and family life by imprisoning family members on charges of theft, debauchery, drunkenness, infidelity, and other violations of civil order. Although some historians date the letters’ origins to the fourteenth century, or perhaps earlier, their use by the king to intervene personally in the exercise of sovereignty dates to the sixteenth century, and their frequency as a tool of royal administration increased in the seventeenth century. Often associated with the excesses of royal absolutist power, historians initially viewed these letters as the prerogative of the king and upper aristocracy. However, although some French notables were arrested in this way (notoriously, Diderot and the Marquis de Sade), most letters were penned by the poor and illiterate with the help of hired scriveners. Many of the dossiers contained multiple letters; they included either repeated attempts to imprison a family member, or additional testimonials from neighbors, the local cure, or police, or later requests that said family member be returned home. These requests for confinement were subsequently directed to and enforced by the local police – without any judicial interventions or possibility for self-defense. Taken as a whole, these letters offer a unique set of historical documents for a period (1728-1758) in which the royal court, regional parlements (courts of appeal), Catholic Church, and other elites dominate public record. They provide and window onto to the experience of ordinary lives touched by power.

 Families turned to the king at times when the authority of their internal hierarchy was powerless and when seeking recourse in the justice system was neither possible (because the matter was too trivial) nor desirable (because it would have been too slow, too costly, too shameful, too uncertain). An insistent demand for state intervention came into being. Was this demand stronger in modest or poor circles than it was in those where greater resources might have been available to resolve problems of this nature (a residence in the countryside or in exile for the scandalous wife or the spendthrift son, a convent where, through means of a pension or a dowry, a troublesome daughter could be imprisoned)? It is possible.

 It was always the king whose intervention was solicited and his administration that looked twice before intervening. That royal authority would pay attention to a small family drama, that would take sides with a father, a husband, a wife etc., doing so outside of the forms of rule-governed justice, that within a family it would enforce its own values, doing so through the police apparatus and its instruments of punishment was something that became not only allowed but actively sought after. The king as the protector and judge of family activities, this image whose symbolism is quite obvious, was at the same time a daily reality in which the feeling of security provided was shadowed by a growing anxiety towards this infinite arbitrariness* that was capable of striking at any moment. This explains why the practice of the family lettre de cache had by the end of the Ancient Regime come to seem as if it had reached a saturation point.

But in hiding the wrongdoer from the eyes of the world, imprisonment without a determined sentence permanently washed away the stain of guilt. This erasure is rather astonishing and required repentance to work. The king corrected, or so it was said, but he did not punish. And relatives did not make the mistake of arguing over this feature of correction that was also a way for the detainee to mend his ways, to regret his wrongdoings, and, through solitude, to find clarity and even, why not, innocence. Once again everything differed from the regular system: the family request for imprisonment was an site of repentance, something that ordinary justice was little interested obtaining. In the eighteenth century, justice whipped and banished, marked and scarred the body, and sent people to the galleys, without troubling itself over other forms of correction. This notion of correction was as absent from the legal system procedures as it was from its problematic. The physical suffering inflicted served a two-fold purpose; avenging the wrong done to society and making this visible upon the body of the condemned, striking the flesh of the delinquent enough for the punishment to become a spectacle, an intimidation, a lesson for others. The legislator was hardly thinking of guiding the criminal’s soul. The soul would only become important much later, during the nineteenth century, when criminality-obsessed philanthropists would lend prisons the atmosphere of convents, in which the guard’s eye as there to provoke repentance, fight evil, and compel amendment. Family requests for imprisonment calling for repentance prefigured the large philanthropic projects of the next century.

* The lieutenancy was caught up in its own dream- policing in the eighteenth century was build entirely around a dream: manufacturing the peoples’ happiness-taking advantage of its ability to dispatch lettres de cache, it appropriated royal intervention as a means of palliating its own weakness, disorder, incoherence, and lack of initiative. As we have seen, inspectors and superintendents tasked with investigations descended into neighborhoods and picked up all manner of information; nothing could be more random, precarious, and unjust than  procedures of this nature.. Thus “the order of the king” sprawled outwards, its tentacles extending everywhere that the lumbering justice system, which was so poorly adapt to insubordinate Parisian sociability,  had been unable to introduce itself. . .


 In 1979 or 1980, I received a telephone call from Michel Foucault asking to meet me in regard to a potential collaboration. How can I express my surprise and emotion when faced with such are request? There were so many disparities between us: social status, age, book publications, international prestige, classes whose audience threatened to spill out beyond the large lecture hall at the College de France . . .

During our meeting, he explains that he wants to publish a fair number of requests for imprisonment sent to the king and to write accompanying interpretations and analysis. At this point I understand that he appreciates the way in which I read “these manuscripts from the past” from poor families who addressed the king in an extraordinarily direct way, without the intermediary of ordinary justice. I had, of course, read, in 1975, his article  titled “Lives of Infamous Men,” which conveyed his admiration for and emotional attachment to the grievances addressed to the highest power in the kingdom. With rigor, emotion, and lyricism, he spoke of lives illuminated solely by ‘the light of justice,” thanks to which they were able to be preserved. The intelligent, controlled and impassioned lyricism of his opening sentences touched me enormously. He spoke of men and women of vies breves, brief lives, a term he preferred to nouvelles in the literary sense of the term. The unique and unfailing beauty of his writing gave a specific tone to the text. For Foucault, those singular lives were also vies poems, life-poems. Speaking of emotion in those days represented a real break from the traditional way of writing about history. He wrote: “I admit that these ‘ short stories’ suddenly emerging from two and a half centuries of silence, stirred more fibers within me that what is ordinarily called literature .  .  . If I made use of documents like these . . . it was doubtless because of the resonance I still experience today when I happen to encounter these lowly lives reduced to ashes in the few sentences that struck them down.”

Reading about the emotional and physical resonance  Foucault experienced was a revelation for me, encouraging and comforting. All the more so because, as a woman, known for being sensitive, my perspective as an historian was often put into doubt, sullied by attributes that historical science didn’t want to understand and on which it has casually shut its door. Having chosen to focus my research on judicial archives, the road ahead was sometimes difficult and combative. It was necessary to maintain, in the most intelligent way possible, that spoken words, the unique situation of every human being, their discourse formed ‘events’ that could be social or religious, political or affective, and more often than not filled with emotion. . .

As for me, today, I’d like to address the reader directly. I want to share – all these years later – a few disarmingly simple musings and memories:

I remember his laugh
I remember his conviction when talking about singular lives and making them actors in history
I remember his love for cinema
I remember love for his black cat
I remember his erudition, his passion for books, literature, reasoning, the desire to convince, the subversive desire (volunte)
I remember his appetite for thinking outside the box, for breaking down barriers between disciplines
I remember his appreciation for the disparate, which deconstructed what we call “the real” ( le reel)
I remember his desire that we each learn the fable of obscure lives
I remember that he always spoke of true lives
I remember his vocabulary: strategies and power
I remember how much he like ruptures and discontinuities, rifts and cracks
I remember what he thought of those in power and the “characters out of Celine  trying to make themselves heard at Versailles.”
I remember his writing to which I don’t want to append any adjectives given that, for me, it is the writing of history.
I remember his fierce love of the shameful and shameless
I remember his activism and his fight for the prisons
I remember the lifelong lesson he imparted on me that the quelconque, the whatever, was only able to appear under the impetus of power
I remember that the quelconque is so serious that it must know how to defy power
I remember meeting and working with Michel Foucault.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Death of the Author and Life of the Text by Roland Barthes

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person.” It is thus logical that in literature, it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the author.

  The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice,. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.

We know now, however, that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning ( the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.

 Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to translate is itself only ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher the text becomes quite futile.

To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”- victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has been that of the Critic; nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author. 

In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, “run” (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced: writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption from meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a “secret”, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.

Let us come back to the Balzac sentence:

In his story “Sarrasine” Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes:  This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings and her delicious sensibility.  Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Women? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know.

Another – very precise- example will help us to make this clear: recent research has demonstrate the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, its text woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is exactly the “tragic’); there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him – this someone being precisely the reader or listener. Thus is revealed the total existence of writing.

The text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations to dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights.  Classic criticism never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature.

We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

It may be that some literary works are reducible, in an explanatory way, to the person and intentions of the author but here Barthes refers to literary texts, which in his view, accomplish an irreducible, stereographic plurality of meanings, a serial movement of disconnections, over-lappings and variations of meanings; activities of association, contiguities and carrying-overs which ‘coincide with the liberation of symbolic energy”, a radical off-centered structure without closure; demoniacal, un-contained in its nature.

'A text abolishes the distance between the writer and reader.  In the text, in his text, the author is himself ‘a guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, no longer privileged, paternal or  theological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author, his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his  work."

This is an aesthetic analysis of Barthes’ experience as an author and reader. Roland Barthes the person is suspended in the act of writing, he becomes the open-ended conduit for the plethora of voices that comprise the consciousness of his individuality none of which are really his own;  he is radically separated from any one position or authoritative control. Its similar to what is called ‘automatic writing.’ A literary text, as opposed to a mere work, accomplishes the same discovery of movement, impermanence and absence of inhibiting closure, for the reader. “ As for the text”, he writes," it is bound to jouissance, that is, a pleasure without separation." The reader IS the author in such cases, on account an active engagement which the author’s self-effacement has provided.

Paul De Man wrote: "Literature as well as criticism - the difference between them being delusive - is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most vigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and modifies himself."

Probably Adorno could shed some light on this experience. Barthes is certainly influenced by the notions of  Mikhail Bakhtin.

Structuralism: Levi-Strauss and Barthes

Claude Levi-Strauss contended that  “if there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined. Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it; language in myth exhibits specific properties. Those properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level, that is, they exhibit more complex features than those which are to be found in any other kind of linguistic expression.” That is, their unique ‘structural properties’, the way their constituent elements relate functionally to establish at  ‘world view’ or pattern of thinking that ‘explains’ in an actionable sense the present and the past as well as the future.

Myths, in Levi-Strauss’s view, seem much like what I.A. Richards called attitudes or belief feelings, paradigms of mental structure which give  ‘order’ to everyday life. Its not so much a belief in the gods themselves as representations of fate, but the peculiarly functional ways the gods and men interact that forms the system of thinking and feeling we call myth, which is analogous to a literary genre. That is,for example, the characters and situations in a ‘mystery’ novels come in great variety but those novels have similar systems of expression by comparison to  romance, science fiction or urban fantasy  novels.

In contemporary politic, for example, ‘myths’ or paradigmatic mental structures ( attitudes and belief-feelings) about the function of the Presidency largely determine our response to the actions (speech or otherwise) of a particular president almost independent of what that president or any president can actually do like ‘mend the economy’ or ‘guarantee international order’, and other unyielding abstract matters

“Prevalent attempts to explain alleged differences between the so-called primitive mind and scientific thought have resorted to qualitative differences between the working processes of the mind in both cases, while assuming that the entities which they were studying remained very much the same [that is, either  primitive or scientific]. If our interpretation is correct, we are led forward to a completely different view – namely, that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied.  This is well in agreement with the situation known to prevail in the field of technology [ and affirms Marx’s view that the ‘means of production’ drive social reproduction.] We may be able to show that the same logical processes operate in myth as in science, and that man has always been thinking equally well; the improvement lies, not in the alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged or unchanging powers.”

In The Structuralist Activity Roland Barthes first identifies ‘structuralism’ more or less phenomenologically: “It is probably the serious recourse to the nomenclature  of signification which we must ultimately take as structuralisms spoken sign: watch who uses signifier and signified, synchronic and diachronic, and you will know where the structuralist vision is constituted.”

For Barthes ‘structure’ represents a distinctive experience which ought to be placed under the common sign of what we might call structural man, defined not by his ideas or his languages, but by his imagination – in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure: an activity, a controlled succession of a certain [or perhaps uncertain] number of mental operations which create ‘a simulacrum of the object’, an interested simulacrum, which makes something appear which would otherwise be invisible. It is an ‘intellectualization’ of the object, a response to the resistance which nature offers to his mind  which constitutes man himself- his history, his situation, his freedom. . . “Structure ‘ is the work of art that man wrests from chance.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Susan Sontag

from Against Interpretation (1964)

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z and so forth) from the whole. The task of interpretation is usually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?

What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming the text? History gives us the materials for an answer. Interpretation first appears in the culture of late classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the “realistic” view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the question that haunts post-mythic consciousness – that of the seemliness of religious symbols – had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. Then interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to “modern” demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the gods had to be moral, allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and his boisterous clan in Homer’s epics. What Homer really designated by the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was the union between power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. The story of the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations and final deliverance.

Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable, yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving the old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text (another notorious example is the Rabbinic and Christian “spiritual” interpretations of the clearly erotic Song of Songs), they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety towards the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style  of interpretation was insistent but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a subtext which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning – the latent content- beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) –are all treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events  only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate phenomena, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume an absolute value, a gesture of the mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within an historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of trans-valuing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. . . .

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and by analogy- our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means . . .

In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)

from the editor of The Critical Tradition's introduction to "The Elevation of  the Historicality of Understanding to the Status of Hermeneutical Principle ( in Truth and Method, 1960) 

Gadamer's philosophical field is usually called "hermeneutics," from the Greek god Hermes who was associated with hidden writings, codes and mysteries. Hermeneutics  is a study of how people make interpretations out of coded texts. The field dates back to late eighteen century when it was becoming clear that the most important text of all - the Judeo-Christian Bible- was a compilation of a number of sources by various authors who had quite disparate moral and literary intentions. It became quintessentially important to theologians, particularly Protestant theologians, to evaluate one interpretation or method of interpretation against another, in order to develop a sense of how and how far interpretation of texts could be trusted. Today, of course, hermeneutics  is a major issue in relation to secular literary as well and biblical texts: the question of whether it is possible to achieve an "objective" interpretation of a particular literary text, or to develop criteria by which one interpretation can be preferred to another.

Gadamer entered the debate over hermeneutics in reaction  to the post-Kantian hermeneutic theories associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1778-1841) and Wilhelm Dilthey (133-1911).  Schleiermacher argued that the interpreter's job is to place himself in the position of the author, to project himself into the author's subjectivity, and in that way try to understand not only the author's intended meaning but also meanings that may have not been present to the author's consciousness. Dilthey saw more clearly than Schleirermacher that historical change was involved in the problem of finding the author's meaning, that the reader had to seek out the mental structures authors create in accordance with the demands of their world-views, which are the world views of their age.. Both Schleiermacher and Dilthey argued that the business of the interpreter of texts is to clear his or her mind of the prejudices and the mental detritus of the present age, so as to be able to enter, with a clean mental state, the world of the author. For Gadamer, such a clean slate - the "reading-degree-zero" that Dilthey postulated - can never exist, because one's consciousness is defined by, and therefore cannot get outside of, the culture one inhabits. Objective truth is therefore impossible. When one exists in the world, one automatically perceives the world - and its texts  - through the "horizon" of meaning that the culture of the present moment provides. 

 Whereas Gadamer's metaphor of the "horizon" suggests the limit of vision imposed by one's physical position in space, he argues that our mental horizons are limited not by space but by our position in time.

The keys to interpretation, for Gadamer, are the very prejudices through which one reads. The English word prejudice has a pejorative cast, summoning up thoughts of a kangaroo court that judges and condemns before it has heard the facts. But the German word Gadamer uses Vorurteilungen, literary "fore-understandings," has nothing of this juridical flavor. Gadamer claims that without the fore-understanding our prejudices provide it would be impossible to achieve any effective-historical understanding of the past. For Gadamer, the voices of tradition and authority that can be barriers to scientific discovery are, in the human  science, a part of what constitutes us as historical beings living in a world of time.

As the result of our interaction with the text, we as readers not only come to understand the text better, we also come to understand ourselves better, in that we become more conscious of the historical place (horizon) from which we interpret. We use the tradition, and in using it we remake it as something new. Consequently, the "prejudices" or "fore-understandngs" through which we interpret texts of the past are not a fixed set of ideas but are themselves constituted and altered by our use of them.

All this seems to suggest a rigid division between the "human sciences", where truth is the product of an inevitably subjective interaction between the text and reader and the "hard sciences", which depend upon an objective scientific method, where the observer has no influence on what he or she observes. But phenomenological approaches to science, such as that of Thomas J. Kuhn, have suggested that the vaunted objectivity of science is only an enabling myth, and that something like Gadamer's notion of "fore-understandng" - in the shape of the "paradigms" that define scientific problems and the methodologies of the investigation - plays exactly the same role within scientific discovery that it does in historical or literary interpretation.

excerpts from the text:

When we try to understand a text, we do not try to recapture the author’s attitude of mind  but, if this is the terminology we are to use, we try to recapture the perspective within which he formed his views. But this means simply that we try to accept the objective validity of what he is saying. If we want to understand, we shall try to make his arguments even more cogent. This happens even in conversation, so how much truer is it of the understanding of what has been written down that we are moving in a dimension of meaning that is intelligible to itself and as such offer no reason for going back to the subjectivity of the author. It is the task of hermeneutics to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not mysterious communion with souls, but a sharing of a common meaning. .  .

The task of hermeneutics has always been to establish agreement where it had failed to come about or been disturbed in some way. The history of hermeneutics can offer a confirmation of this if, for example, we think of Augustine, who sought to relate the Christian gospel to the old testament, or of  early protestantism, which faced the same problem or, finally, the age of enlightenment, when it was almost like a renunciation of agreement to seek to acquire “full understanding” of a text only by means  historical interpretation. It is something qualitatively new when romanticism and Schleiermacher ground a universal historical consciousness by no longer seeing the binding form of tradition, from which they come and in which they stand, as the firm foundation of all hermeneutical endeavor…

Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged, because it separates, but  it  is actually the supportive ground of process in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome . . . the important thing is to recognize the distance in time as positive and possibility of understanding. It is no a yawning abyss, but it is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us. .  .

If we are trying to understand a historical phenomena from the historical distance that is characteristic of the our hermaneutical situation, we are always subject to the effects of effective-history*. It determines in advance both what seems to us worth inquiring about  and what will appear to be an object of investigation, and we more or less forget half of what was really there – in fact, we miss the whole truth of a phenomenon when we take its immediate appearance as the whole truth.

Understanding [which ] is, essentially, an effective-historical understanding.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Northrup Frye


“The Archetypes of Literature”, Kenyon Review (vol. 8, 1951)

‘ground plan of a systematic and comprehensive development of criticism’

In criticism, as in history, the divine is always treated as a human artifact. God for the critic, whether he finds it in Paradise Lost or the Bible, is a character in a human story; and for the critic all epiphanies are explained, not in terms of the riddle of a possessing god or devil, but as mental phenomena closely associated in their origin with dreams. This once established, it is then necessary to say that nothing in criticism or art compels the critic to take the attitude of ordinary waking consciousness towards the dream or the god. Art deals not with the real but with the conceivable; and criticism, though it will eventually have to have some theory of conceivability, can never be justified in trying to develop, much less assume, any theory of actuality. It is necessary to understand this before our next and final point can be made.

We have identified the central myth of literature, in its narrative aspect, with the quest-myth. Now if we wish to see this central myth as a pattern of meaning also, we have to start with the workings of the subconscious where the epiphany originates, in other words in the dream. The human cycle of waking and dreaming corresponds closely to the natural cycle of light and darkness, and it is perhaps in this correspondence that all imaginative life begins. The correspondence is largely an antithesis; it is in the daylight that man is really in the power of darkness, a prey to frustration and weakness; it is in the darkness of nature that the “libido” or the conquering heroic self awakes.

Hence art, which Plato called a dream for awakened minds, seems to have as its final cause the resolution of the antithesis, the mingling of the sun and the hero, the realizing of a world in which the inner desire and the outward circumstance coincide. This is the same goal, of course, that the attempt to combine human and natural power in ritual has. The social function of the arts, therefore, seems to be  closely connected with visualizing the goal of work in human life. So in terms of significance, the central myth of art must be the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society.

Once this is understood, the integral place of criticism among the other social sciences, in interpreting and systematizing the vision of the artist, will be easier to see. It is at this point that we can see how religious conceptions of the final cause of human effort are as relevant as any others to criticism . . .

Friday, December 29, 2017

Kenneth Burke

A reading from Kenneth Burke’s [1897-1993] Literature as Equipment for Living in The Critical Tradition

“Here I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Sociological criticism is certainly not new. I shall here try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach And to make the ‘way in’ as easy as possible I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs- Step One.

Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no ‘pure’ literature here. Everything is “medicine.” Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling. Or they name typical, recurrent situations. That is, people find a certain social relationship recurring  so frequently  that they must “have a word for it”

The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here is no “realism for its own sake.” Here is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

Step two: Why not extend  such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature? Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered somewhat as “proverbs writ large?” Such leads, if held admissible, should help us to discover important facts about literary organization ( thus satisfying the requirements of technical criticism). And the kind of criticism  from this perspective should apply beyond literature to life in general (thus helping to take literature out of its separate bin and give it a place in the general “sociological” picture.)

The point of view  might be phrased this way: Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. In so far as situations are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be a called attitudes . . .

Looking a these definitions of strategy [ in the Concise Oxford, New English Dictionaries and Andre Cheron – ‘strategy signifies the maneuvers whose goal is attack and correct position’], I gain courage. For surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct larger movements and operations’ in one’s campaign of living. One ‘maneuvers,’  and the ‘maneuvering is an ‘art”.

One tries to fight on his own terms, developing a strategy for imposing  the proper “time, place and conditions.” But one must also, to develop a full strategy, be realistic. One must size things up’ properly. One cannot accurately know how things will be, what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things are. So the wise strategist will not be content with the strategies of the merely self-gratifying sort. He will “keep his weather eye open’ He will not too eagerly “read into” a scene an attitude that is irrelevant to it. He won’t sit on the side of an active volcano and “see” it as a dormant plain.

Often, alas, he will . . .

 What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off  evil eyes, for purification, propitiation, and de- sanctification, consolation, and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy” or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies”, the “over-all” strategy obtained by the inspection of the lot."