Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Ethical Criticism? or: The Fate of Interpretation in an Age of Computation

Why is it that I am so insistent that interpretation be kept separate from reading? Why is it that I think that the profession’s desire to elide the difference between the two, to believe – heart and soul – is now counterproductive? Yes, I want to clear conceptual space for the description of formal features and for computational and otherwise mechanistic models of literary processes. But I also want to clear space for a forthright ethical criticism.

It is clear to me that textual meaning is something that is negotiated among critics (and their readers) through the process of interpretation. Such meaning cannot be objectively determined – though textual semantics could, at least in principle, be objectively modeled (but not yet, we don’t know how). In this usage, semantics is a facet of a computational model of mind while meaning is what happens in a mind that is articulating its encounter with a text. Yes, that’s a bit obscure, but I want to move on.

As I have articulated time and again, the creation of textual meaning through the interpretive process is a relatively new practice, dating back to the middle of the previous century, roughly speaking. We must understand it as new, not so we can supplant it with something newer still, but so that we can cultivate it without it having to bear the burden of being the central focus of the encounter between knowledge and art (as beauty, love, adventure). Naturalist criticism needs to be freed of interpretation so that it can pursue the description of form and the creation of psychological and neural models.

By the same token, ethical criticism needs the freedom to explore new ways of being human, ways that can be discovered through full responsiveness to literary texts (and other aesthetic objects). Interpretation is a vehicle for ethical response. Interpretation articulates possibilities of feeling and action. Evaluation passes judgment on whether or not these possibilities are to be pursued and even amplified.

Human “nature” IS NOT closed by human biology. Human biology leaves our nature open to cultural specification and elaboration. That’s where interpretation and evaluation come into their own, And THAT’s why I want to acknowledge that interpretation is different from (mere) reading. Interpretation must be acknowledged and developed as being essential to this enterprise.

That can happen ONLY when academic critics stop insisting, against all reason, that interpretation is really just reading on steroids (or something like that). It’s not. It’s new mode of knowing, a new mode of reading intersubjective agreement. It must be cultivated as such.

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See Coltrane's Addendum, newly posted.

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