Saturday, November 8, 2008

E.D. Hirsch and the Death of the Reader

In his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes radically redefines the traditional concepts of writing and reading. As the title suggests, Barthes takes all interpretive power away from the Author, opening the text up for all interpretation and granting the Reader a kind of authority heretofore unseen in literary theory. Once the author has been killed off--or at least reduced to a mere “scriptor” who “no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions”--the text becomes free of fixed meaning, and the reader becomes “the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost”--the locus of interpretation shifts from the Author, past the text, and onto the Reader. In short, Barthes proposes an act of reading that borders on secular religion--the Author sacrifices him or herself in order to allow the Reader salvation, or in this case, ultimate sway over the text. Or, as the scriptor himself puts it, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

Obviously, Barthes’ system is radical in its redistribution of power, and while it perhaps rescues the reader from many years of comparative impotence in interpretation, Barthes is, I feel, guilty of clustering power in a new source--in his destruction of the hegemony of the Author, he creates a new hegemony of the Reader, and the Author’s death leads in the end to not much at all.

A better system comes from E.D. Hirsch’s 1960 essay “Objectivity in Interpretation.” Writing in the brief space between the two biggest academic movements of the 20th-century--the New Criticism that ruled universities from the 1920s through the late ‘50s, and the Poststructuralism that would take hold in 1968, thanks in no small part to Barthes’ essay--Hirsch suggests a division of labor of sorts, between interpretation and criticism.

The former he defines as “the construction of textual meaning as such; it explicates . . . those meanings, and only those meanings, which the text explicitly or implicitly represents.” With his emphasis on the text here, he sounds like a New Critic, but he is not; contrary to the “text-only” approach, he says that “This permanent meaning is, and can be, nothing other than the author’s intention." Hirsch thus moves the locus of authority in interpretation away from the text and the reader and gives it back to the author, in a move that sounds quite old-fashioned to the post-1968 Academy.

The role of the interpreter, in this schema, is to “distinguish those meanings which belong to that verbal intention [of the author] from those which do not . . . the interpreter has to distinguish what a text implies from what it does not imply.” However, interpretation is not as constricting a task as it may sound; Hirsch acknowledges that, while there may be a strict meaning as determined by the author’s intentions, we will never really have access to it--and so interpretion ends up being open in its way, at least to the extent that we never know for sure if our interpretation is correct or not. After the act of interpretation is complete, the interpreter is free to become the critic. Criticism, according to Hirsch, is an act of application. It takes the interpretation of a text and views it “as a component within a larger context.” This act has essentially limitless possibilities and operates on a far more subjective basis; and Hirsch does not spend very much space in the essay discussing criticism, perhaps because he has far less to define.

In a way, “Objective Interpretation” opens the door wide for “The Death of the Author.” Barthes’ essay promotes what Hirsch calls criticism, but it does so by first ignoring or destroying what Hirsch calls interpretation. Further, Barthes takes delight in an idea that horrifies Hirsch: namely, that “As soon as the reader’s outlook is permitted to determine what a text means, we have not simply a changing meaning but quite possibly as many meanings as readers.” Barthes, far less concerned (if concerned at all) with upholding traditional concepts of meaning, is happy to “refus[e] to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text . . . to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science, law.”

The death of the Author results in a chaos and an anarchy that exhilarates Barthes as much as it unsettles Hirsch. The concept of a “correct interpretation” is in the end tantamount to the Greek concept of logos, a “guiding idea” that holds the world together. Judgment is not possible without it, objectivity is not possible without it, and ultimately, literary study is not possible without it, since “No one would bother seriously to discuss such a protean object” as the meaningless text. (Indeed, a common complaint about the modern English department is that, freed from its responsibility to pass on Western culture--a task which is more or less dependent upon objective meaning--it has lost its function in the world and become obsolete.) Further, Hirsch, in his criticism of reader- and text-centered criticism, suggests that those theories “really [mask] the idea that the reader construes his own, new meaning instead of that represented by the text.” When a critic puts the locus of authority on him or herself, in other words, it is first and foremost an act of egotism.

And this indictment of Barthesian egotism points to the chief advantage of Hirsch’s system, as I see it: the humility it requires from the reader/interpreter/critic. (Interestingly, in requiring humility, Hirsch separates the reader from the interpreter and the interpreter from the critic, whereas in “The Death of the Author,” these roles are implicitly combined.) If the objective meaning of a text is bound up in an author’s intentions, then the interpreter, in order to discover that meaning, “must familiarize himself with the typical meanings of the author’s mental and experiential world.” He must, in other words, bend himself to the will of the author, as expressed through the text--the personality of the interpreter, does not matter nearly as much as it does for Barthes (who, after all, in The Pleasure of the Text, suggests a similarity between interpretation and masturbation). In fact, the interpreter must leave himself behind completely and try to recreate, as best he can, the mindset and viewpoint of the author.

In addition to humility before the author, Hirsch simultaneously requires humility before the other interpreters. He sensibly recognizes that we cannot reasonably expect to put ourselves in the position of the author; and because “the meaning represented by a text is that of another, the interpreter can never be certain that his reading is correct.” So, while there is an objective meaning to a text, the interpreter must take pains to remind him or herself that his or her interpretation is not coterminous with it.

I believe that this viewpoint paradoxically elevates the individual interpretation. If there is no such thing as an objective meaning to a text, then we have little reason to listen to and seriously consider another person’s interpretation. But if there is an objective meaning--if my interpretation of a text can be wrong in a real way--then it is my duty to pay attention to what other people say, to allow their interpretations to critique and correct my own. Hirsch’s system, built on a single meaning from a single mind, actually leads in the end to a communal effort at interpretation--and that community is a major advantage of his system.

That kind of community is, of course, on display in seminar classes (at least when the members of the class are talking with each other instead of at each other--which has, thankfully, been my experience for the most part); student or teacher will suggest a possible reading for a text, and the remaining members of the class will run that reading through the machine of interpretation or criticism. The operant question, however, is whether seminars operate on criticism or on interpretation.

Because of the nature of immediate discussion--as opposed to dialogue that takes place in print, which can take months and years--I would like to suggest that most classrooms operate in the realm of criticism. That is, students discuss associations rather than meaning; they connect assigned texts to unassigned texts, to philosophy and politics and other disciplines. This is not to say that interpretation never takes place in a classroom--obviously, we occasionally talk about what an author had in mind with a particular poem. But because of the necessity of research and specific knowledge in interpretation (Hirsch says that “The probability that I am right in the way I educe implications depends upon my familiarity with the type of meaning I consider”), I suspect that interpretation begins as a solitary act and becomes communal only once the individual interpreter has had time to formulate his or her impressions more or less fully--and I suspect that that formulation happens primarily in writing.

That classroom work primarily consists of criticism rather than interpretation brings up a weakness of Hirsch’s system: If interpretation takes place before criticism, and if interpretation requires enough research and knowledge as to be primarily private (at least, again, in its early stages), then what is the role of the literature class? How can we have a classroom discussion that consists primarily of application/criticism come before the research that characterizes interpretation? The undergraduate classroom--which usually contains more lectures by the professor than does the graduate seminar--fits rather nicely into Hirsch’s schema, but the graduate classroom does not, unless students are willing to immerse themselves into the life and times of the subject of that week’s readings (probably a tall order for most students).

The graduate literature class, then, must either radically change the way it operates or else face the “facts” that, according to Hirsch, it is putting the cart before the horse in conducting criticism without interpretation. I suspect the former will not happen, and while it is a weakness of Hirsch’s system that the graduate seminar almost necessarily breaks the rules, our awareness of our transgression may in the end be another way of approaching the text with Hirschian humility.


Ford said...

With all my positive comments I think I'm running the risk of becoming a Michial Farmer fanboy, but I have to say that I think this essay works not only as a fair treatment of the proper role of an interpreter in reading, but also in other areas as well. We could use a bit more awareness in public discourse of the distinctions you point out here. How refreshing it would be if in political discussions or news coverage we distinguished between criticism and interpretation, and made a collective attempt at humble investigation of world events and political issues!

Michial said...

I'm glad you brought up politics, Ford--it seems to me that Hirsch's schema would be a GREAT way to evaluate the Constitution, which seems to be constantly pulled to one side or the other. The same is true of the Bible, of course, but I think Hirsch's hermeneutic is not TOO far from a slightly more liberal version of what we received at TFC.

Thank you for your kind remarks!

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Pretty good stuff. I had to backtrack to remind myself which was criticism and which interpretation (I often have to do that with technical terminology), but I think you've got a good distinction going. I do wonder, though, whether Hirsch's single-author(ity) model ignores some of the complexity in the human soul--in what ways might the sort of existential alienation you talked about earlier play into this theory in meaningful ways?

Joel said...

Yeah, I think this belongs in Michial Farmer's Greatest Hits. Of course, I like "Pittsburgh Waltz" a lot, too, so what do I know?

magnifygod said...

I apologize for coming in late in the discussion, but at least three biblical scholars-- Walter Kaiser, Elliott Johnson and Robert Stein-- have all adopted a form of interpretation that builds on the foundations of Hirsch. I recommend them highly.

Michial said...

I will have to check them out. Thanks for reading and commenting!