Friday, March 27, 2009

differing approaches to geek hermeneutics

My exegesis of BSG's theology and cosmology used the show itself-- and only the show-- as the text. A few years ago, Dan Kois did a massive exegesis of "Donnie Darko" for that relied on more than just the film: he also invoked directorial commentary (interviews, DVD extras, the longer, director's-cut version of "Donnie Darko," etc.) and website material.

Kois's exegesis had the advantage of respecting authorial intent to a higher degree than my BSG effort did. In my case, even though I'm a big fan of authorial intent, the entire point of my essay was to demonstrate that BSG creator/developer Ron Moore's story led ineluctably-- especially given its conclusion-- to uncomfortable theological implications that could not be explained away by the ideas Moore was floating to his fans-- ideas like Jungian collective unconscious as an explanation for why anglophone North American culture was popping up with down-to-the-idiom similarity on multiple worlds.

Where are you, dear Reader, when it comes to respecting authorial intent in your appreciation and interpretation of a given work?



Rhesus said...

L'auteur est mort!

Kevin said...

Personnellement, je pense que non. Le problème avec la pensée postmoderniste est que l'on essaie d'affirmer deux choses contradictoires en même temps: cette idée de l'autonomie du texte, et l'idée que tout phénomène est contextualisé.

Ma question: laquelle de ces deux alternatives est la vraie? A-t-on besoin d'un contexte ou non? L'auteur est-il mort... ou fait-il partie du contexte dans lequel se trouve son oeuvre? Je ne trouve aucune réponse cohérente chez Derrida et ses semblables.

Rhesus said...

Well, JD once accused a critic on one of those French philosopher talk shows of not reading him correctly (I don't have a link). Assuming this is true, and further assuming that JD was not a complete nihilist, then even he considered a text to have a "primary" meaning related to the intentions of the author.

I haven't read much of his work, but I suspect that his privileging the text had the same purpose (oh no I am again ascribing authorial intentions) as his other supplement-inversions, like "writing is prior to speech," which certainly didn't mean that he thought writing came before speech in history.

The notion that texts should be examined or understood without reference to the author predates the postmods, anyway.

Kevin said...

You're right, of course: "death of the author" predates Derridean thinking, and some even tie it all the way back to Kantian "turn to the subject," which opened the door to so much PoMo subjectivism.

Derrida and I have a history, as I had to study some of his work in grad school, especially in relation to scriptural hermeneutics.

Derrida didn't help his own case in developing his "deconstruction." By arguing that one never arrives at clear meanings (he was a big fan of semantic ambivalence), Derrida undermined his own ability to assert anything coherently.

Some of his ideas have appeal for me, like the concept of "différance," deliberately misspelled. That idea (and others of Derrida's concepts) was actually adopted from Ferdinand de Saussure, often called the father of modern linguistics, and the guy who spurred Derrida's own writing on meaning and ambivalence. PoMo recycles a lot; many PoMo concepts date back centuries.

Despite my disagreements with Derrida and with most PoMo thinking, I'm not Derrida's enemy; I agree, for example, with the Derridean contention that there is no "transcendental signified," no sign or symbol that represents the bedrock of meaning. Instead, we live in a world where words and concepts can only be defined in terms of other words and concepts. This idea is important, but here again, Derrida isn't the first to voice it. Buddhist metaphysics has the notion of pratitya-samutpada, dependent co-arising, in which all phenomena are understood to be arising intercausally, with nothing being a "being in-itself." But whether Derridean differential postmodernism has an ally in Buddhism is debatable.

I strongly disagree with Derrida's contention that "il n'y a pas de hors-texte," i.e., there exists no out(side)-of-text. Derrida himself backed away from this claim, probably because he could see that it didn't play out as a coherent metaphysic: human beings routinely have prelinguistic, preconceptual, and transconceptual experiences. Much about human experience lies outside of "text."

You might call me a convert away from Derrida, whose work I actually liked in grad school, but which I've come to see as largely gibberish since graduating in 2002 (a good fisking of Derrida can be found here). Part of my problem was that I'd read so little in Western philosophy before encountering the wizened Frenchman; I'd read Derrida's critique of the "metaphysics of presence" before I learned much about classical thought (and eventually saw that Derrida's critique was aimed at a straw man).

So I approach Derrida these days with-- as they say in religious studies academe-- a hermeneutic of suspicion. Heh.


Rhesus said...

I'm glad that your history with Derrida didn't include any biological aspects.

It seems to me that his project was to come up with a way of thinking that made it impossible to conceptualize hierarchical relationships, the assumption being that hierarchies (embedded in language and hence thought) are the main source of human suffering. Deconstruction then is a way to demonstrate that 1) logic is dependent on the structure of language and 2) language itself has no stable connection to meaning.

This isn't necessarily a bad project. At any rate, it seems most useful as a way to be skeptical of comprehensive systems, whether social, political, or religious. This is a kind of skepticism we need very much, especially in university Literature departments where the howling in favor of postmod is the loudest.

Charles said...

I'm just tickled that I can read and understand your French comment up there. Of course, it helps to know the subject matter and your views on it in advance, but still.

(As for my opinion on the matter... probably pretty similar to yours, although my particular field of study doesn't really have a concept of a single author. For us it's not that the author is dead, it's that the author is the Borg, more or less.)

Rhesus said...

Cute fluffy animals in modern combat:


Smallholder said...

Smallholder's introduction to deconstructivism:

I went to grad school at William and Mary. One of the courses had rotating guest instructors. One of those instructors was a post-modernist Derrida disciple. I tried to wade through the pre-class reading but it struck me as so much gobbedly-gook.

The grad student's dissertation was on the role of women in the Vietnam War. As he laid out the basic argument that all knowledge was constructed and that there was no "truth," I asked how one should judge historical monographs like his paper - if there was no truth, I wondered, how do we distinguish between interpretations. His answer: usefulness.

This blew me away. If a work of history was useful, then whether it was a faithful analysis of the evidence was beside the point. I argued that (this was pre-internet Godwin rules) by his standard, the "Protocols of Zion" was quite useful and therfore "good history." Unwilling to abandon his statement, he actually agreed.

Later on, he argued that there was no reality - in fact, the giant wooden table we were sitting around was only a wooden table because we "agreed" that it was a table - it had no independent reality. Frustrated by this blatant disregard of the manifestly real, I offered to try a test. Since meaning was constructed by out consciousness, we could test the reality - I would slam his nose into the table and see if it broke - since a nose is incapable of constructing meaning, this little test should prove or disprove his hypothesis. With a smug little smile, he replied that his nose would break - because we agreed that is what would happen.

Of course, I'm sure there are people out there who can argue the PoMo position without drooling on themselves. But that encounter left me feeling, shall we say, less than impressed.

On a side note, the rerun of the end of BSG was on and out previous discussion led me to try to watch. I missed a bunch, what with four tykes running amok, but what I did see convinces me further that, despite Adama's decision to go back to nature, his people would have still rebuilt their culture in a short time.

I particularly liked the end with the ominously cute robots. Heh.