While working this afternoon on a translation of Kafka’s Das Urteil—the last I shall attempt for a while, as I find translating distracts me from reading—I received a gift in the form of further reflections on Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws”. I must obey the gods, so here is a second post on that essay. It comes in the form of a reflection on the intentional fallacy. Almost everything I know about the academic debate about intentionalism, I know from Noël Carroll’s very able defense of intentionalism in Beyond Aesthetics. I am also no doubt informed by Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” (from Must Me Mean What We Say), two wonderful texts whose content I have almost entirely forgotten, but whose effects I hope stick with me still.
Debate over the intentional fallacy is a bit of meta-discourse about the practice of interpretation: at stake is the way in which we go about interpreting texts. Intentionalists (such as Carroll) say that we should be guided, for the most part, by the author’s intent. What was she trying to say with the work? How did she intend it to operate? Interpretation should uncover the answers to such questions; thereby we attain understanding of the work. Against this, there are those, once led by Cleanth Brooks and W.K. Wimsatt, who argue that it is a fallacy to see interpretation as beholden to the author’s intent—they label this the intentional fallacy. Instead, interpretation should stick to the work itself, and deal only with what is present therein. I shall call Brooks and company “fallacists”, as I find the word fun to say.
In a sense I think this is a non-debate. We should ask what is the goal of interpretation. Intentionalists and fallacists will no doubt agree that the goal is either truth, understanding, or both. As I see it, intentionalists strive to be true to the author’s intent, while fallacists strive for truth to the work itself. This may lead to clashes, for what one finds in the work may not be what the author intended, but are such clashes to be resolved by matters of more than taste? I am not so sure.
Yet I do want to raise some problems, inspired by Emerson’s essay, about intentionalism and fallacism in turn. What happens if we see works, texts, as experiments? In my post from earlier today I discussed at length the relation between experiments and theories about what one is doing. As Emerson puts it, “There is less intention in history than we ascribe to it.” (306) If works are not aimed at producing some specific result, foreseen in advance, but experimental inquiries aimed at finding out what will happen, then there may be no intent to be had. Intent, in such a scenario, is something added on after the fact: ah, so I accomplished this? Very well, that is what I intended! Intentionalists would then be groping in thin air, attempting to construct a theory of the work that mirrors that of the artist—yet the artist has no such theory. In such a case, intentionalism is genuinely a fallacy.
Is this a victory for the fallacists? I do not think so. Just as the intentionalists falsely assumed that the existence of an intent to which they could be true, the fallacists falsely assume the existence of a self-sufficient work which they might be true. Not so. “What can we see or acquire, but what we are? You have observed a skillful man reading Virgil. Well, that author is a thousand books to a thousand persons. Take the book into your two hands, and read your eyes out; you will never find what I find.” (314) The work itself is unfinished until it contacts a reader, a conversational partner, with whom it may engage in a joint experiment. What are the effects of this work? A senseless question until we specify the recipient of its effects. The work exists to be encountered, and once encountered, it is permissive, willing to travel alongside its partner down innumerable paths.
Interpretation, on this view, aims neither at truth-to-intent nor truth-to-the-work, but at fidelity to one’s own experience. It is the faithful recording of the results of the experiment—just as was the original work. Indeed, the best interpretation should be a work in its own right, should produce effects as difficult to foresee as those of the original work. Do not settle for transmitting bland truths that anyone may find. The best interpretation offers itself up for a thousand encounters as intense as that from which it grew. Else it has no business being written. And, though it should go without saying, we cannot expect or enforce a foolish consistency across repeated encounters of a single work by a single individual.
Now I must confess to a sleight of hand. I have not undermined either intentionalism or fallacism, not really. For authors and artists are not blind in their creations. They do have intent as they create—vindication for the intentionalist—and they do produce self-standing works—vindication for the fallacists. The question of how to interpret such works remains open—I have contributed nothing to answering it—so long as the task of interpretation in the classic sense remains one we consider worthwhile. And therein lies my real purpose, my real intent as it were: to suggest that perhaps this classic task of interpretation is not an important one. It is a choice, so far as I can see, whether to treat of works in the manner of intentionalists and fallacists, or whether to treat of them in a more experimental manner. I urge the latter. Interpretation becomes words about words, and soon enough words about words about words. Better, to my taste, acts upon acts. I have called these acts upon acts “interpretations”, but I needn’t have. Perhaps I would have been better off following Deleuze and Guattari when they praise experimentation over interpretation. In any event, I look for encounters. I value effects over understanding.
What effects—I do not know. Not yet.
§1. The Philosophy of Experiment
Ralph Waldo Emerson is a philosopher in the grand tradition of care for oneself, and his work is much more about such care than it is about any particular doctrines. The form that Emerson’s care for the self takes is of a special sort: it is experimental. I spent yesterday evening in the vivifying presence of Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”, and came away more convinced than ever that Emerson cannot be understood if one does not place experiment at the heart of his philosophy. Experiment, it turns out, is crucial for the very articulation of the self on which one is supposed to rely. In characterizing Emerson’s philosophy of experiment, I shall enlist a pair of allies: Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze. (References and abbreviations are at the end of the post.)
Emerson’s philosophy of experiment is simple at its core. It is impossible to know your powers in advance, before you have exhibited them, so experiment on yourself in order to learn what they are, how they may be deployed. “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” (E&L 259) This, combined with Emerson’s belief that “Power is in nature the essential measure of right” (E&L 272) is enough to yield his valorization of practices of experiment on oneself.
The same idea may be found in Deleuze: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into compositions with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” (ATP 257) Affects are just that which augments or diminishes an individual’s power to act. How do we learn a body’s affects? “Make a rhizome. But you don’t know what you can make a rhizome with, you don’t know which subterranean stem is effectively going to make a rhizome, or enter a becoming, people your desert. So experiment.” (ATP 251) Not only do we not know, we have little basis to predict: “We can be thrown into a becoming by anything at all, by the most unexpected, most insignificant of things. You don’t deviate from the majority unless there is a little detail that starts to swell and carries you off.” (ATP 292)
And also in Nietzsche; I will let a single passage suffice: “Knowing one’s circumstances. – We can estimate our powers but not our power. Our circumstances do not only conceal and reveal it to us – no! they magnify and diminish it. One should regard oneself as a variable quantity whose capacity for achievement can under favorable circumstances perhaps equal the highest ever known: one should thus reflect on one’s circumstances and spare no effort in observing them.” (D §326)
So there is the idea. It is simple enough in outline, though there are complications I have not yet considered. But despite this theoretical simplicity, implementing such experimental techniques requires overcoming any number of opponents. A greater feel for what it is to experiment may be obtained by considering these dangers.
§2. The opposition to experiment
A. Morality and society. In a passage to which we shall later return, Emerson names the “one fact the world hates.” (E&L 271) And indeed it is the world—which here means society—that provides one of the dominant sources of opposition to experiment. What need is there for experiment if established customs have found the correct way already? The dictates of morality (which is nothing more than a particular form of custom), when they are external to the individual, are a burden, and are not noble. “Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances.” (E&L 263) Emerson, in contrast, imagines the person who never apologizes—never needs to apologize—and never regrets a past act. “Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.” (E&L 276)
There is thus a critique of morality inherent in Emerson’s experimental philosophy. Of course, he talks about a universal moral law all across his essays and journals, and he unquestionably means it. But it is not in any way this which society enforces. Society enforces morality as a custom, at the expense of the individual. Indeed, it is by experiment and self-reliance that we come to know this law, and not by deference to society. At the very start of “Self-Reliance”, Emerson defines genius, and his definition says all that is needed: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” (E&L 259)
Nietzsche carried this critique of morality much further than Emerson, and in a much more thorough fashion. More than that, however, I think Nietzsche diagnosed a fundamental opposition between moral and experimental thinking that Emerson, if he did not miss it altogether, at least did not express clearly (to my knowledge). In a passage I read recently and, to my immense frustration, cannot find at the moment, Nietzsche suggests an opposition between two ways of thinking about the results of one’s actions. On the one hand, one may see them as judgments: I suffer as punishment for my actions. On the other, one may see them as answers to questions: ah, so that is how I work. So that is what I am capable of accomplishing. The latter is the experimenter’s attitude. The former is a moral outlook, and it kills experiment. It kills experiment precisely by making “bad” results into a punishment, a negative consequence, rather than a knowledge-enhancing answer to the question posed by the action. It is not uncommon for a scientist to point out that experiments with unexpected or “wrong” results are often more worthwhile than experiments that go as planned—Nietzsche has simply transported this thought into the philosophy of experimental living, and in doing show captured what is most antithetical to experiment about morality and a moral outlook on the world.
B. The “divided and rebel mind.” Emerson isolates a second danger: “that divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose” (E&L 260)—in short, a too excessive realism. Emerson is an idealist in just about every sense in which idealism can be contrasted with realism, including the oft-pejorativized sense of one who remains committed to an ideal in the face of recalcitrant reality. Like a moral outlook, but in a slightly different way, a too great realism may kill experimentation. Here, the mind seeks foundations for action in advance. But it is central to experiment that the answers cannot be known in advance. Great scientific experiments are precisely those that have the possibility of yielding unexpected results that cannot be assimilated to current theories, and so too experiments on the self.—As an aside, perhaps the most incisive critique of the current institutions in which scientific research takes place is that they are structured in a way that penalizes the sort of research likely to yield unexpected results, what one might, on a Nietzschean day, call dangerous experiments. But this is not the place and I am not the person to explore that issue in any depth.—In short, experimentation, by its very nature, lacks foundations. Experimentation lacks and must lack foundations, because experimentation is above all else that which has the potential to call existing foundations into question.
This fear of the absence of foundations goes hand in hand with the problems of sociality and morality: we fear the judgment of others or of some god or gods if the results do not turn out as expected. So long as that is the case, we shall stick to safe experiments, or, to put it more bluntly, we shall not experiment at all. Even if we escape that trap, there is another difficulty: the inability to handle failure. Should one experiment fail, we may become discouraged. On this point, Emerson praises the values of Stoicism, which will allow the young experimenter to take a failure in stride and move on the next. “Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves.” (E&L 275)
C. Faith. Creeds, dogmas, articles of faith—these are the next opponent of the experimental intellect. “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother’s.” (E&L 276) To accept unquestioningly as true what is handed down is to abandon oneself, to put one’s trust in others. If the truth is received, there is no need to experiment. But such external trust involves a dilution and a half-possession, until the divine is lost altogether. Faith is even more insidious than this, however. For while dogmas represent themselves as eternal and infallible, in fact they are flexible and assimilative—and so they take in the results of experiments and make of them new dogmas. “Every mind is a new classification,” Emerson writes, “But in all unbalanced minds, the classification is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe.” (E&L 276-7) Even the experimenter may be seduced by this, as Nietzsche notices: “Whenever a great thinker wants to make of himself a binding institution for future mankind, one may be certain that he is past the peak of his powers and is very weary, very close to the setting of his sun.” (D §542)
Faith corrupts in another way. It prevents action, by reversing the order of events in the mind and body. Deeds come before faith. If we encourage only faith, that is, only certain beliefs, we shall never build up enough to amount to a deed. Any deed always stretches beyond faith. “Protestant teachers continue to propagate the fundamental error that all that matters is faith, and that out of faith works must necessarily proceed. This is simply not true… The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed… Works, first and foremost! That is to say, doing, doing, doing! The ‘faith’ that goes with it will soon put in an appearance – you can be sure of that!” (D §22) Faith is mere rationalization, after the fact. Act first, and it will follow. Once again, experiment precedes all foundation.
D. Language. The heading of language encompasses a vicious pack of dangers. Language first of all brings the possibility of being misunderstood, a possibility that is only exacerbated when one speaks in one’s own idiom and not in the common manner. For Emerson, this danger also results from abandonment of a cloistering consistency (see 2.F below)—if one is willing to contradict oneself, “’Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’” (E&L 265) While Emerson resolves this danger quickly for himself—“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” (E&L 265)—others do not take it so lightly. At repeated points in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari praise experimentation in direct opposition to interpretation, “experimentation against any kind of interpretation” (ATP 267), and they write in a style that makes interpretation very difficult and experimentation more accessible.
This danger of language is exacerbated by a feature of language that is both a danger and a blessing: its poverty. I have discussed before how all translations are evil—well, what is language but a form of translation? Emerson describes words as “the far-off remembering of the intuition” (E&L 271), that is, a distant echo of the direct perception of the divine. Words, at their best, are our attempt to translate such perception into a public language, but this can be done only imperfectly. No one can experience the divine through another, by adopting his language. Language, in its highest function, is a form of translation, and so is an evil. Likewise, we may invert Nietzsche, who speaks of the need to set in motion a “subtle, many-faceted mechanism… if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (D §22) Instead, we may wonder at the possibility of translating a deed, an experiment, into an idea, into something that may be spoken and transmitted—once again, we come upon the inherent evil and poverty of translation.
At the same time, this fact about language is not an unwelcome danger. It makes Emerson’s entire philosophy of experiment possible. For the primary result of this fact about language is that it renders impossible any sort of received truth. In language, one may receive goads and prods—it is no accident that Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze all write in ways designed to stir one’s body and not just one’s mind—but never truth. To accept the dogma of another is, as noticed above, at best going to lead to mere half-possession, a pale shadow of the original—as it must, since language itself is a pale shadow of the original intuition. The impossibility of a definitive formulation of truth leads to the constant need to experiment, to find one’s own formulation. This feature of language is what preserves the very possibility of and need for self-reliance without imitation.
E. History. In all sorts of ways, the past, the history of human life, sets itself in opposition to experimentation in the present. Custom, discussed above, is but a means for the past. Nietzsche captures its true nature: “Morality makes stupid. – Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the creation of new and better customs: it makes stupid.” (D §19) Custom is just the petrification of the results of successful experiments: they cease to be valued for their success, and instead are valued for their age. Emerson speaks thus on this point: “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.” (E&L 261) And he himself shows how to use names, how to use the past. After saying that it is not so bad to be misunderstood, Emerson calls to mind some examples: “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.” (E&L 265) This is an almost totally indiscriminate lumping together of names as instances of a single phenomenon—but that is how names are to be used. They are to be called to mind when one needs them to leap over some hurdle, but they are not to be venerated. Indeed, they are to be dropped as soon as the moment of perception comes. “Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall.” (E&L 270) What Emerson is doing in his use of names is what Nietzsche describes as monumental history. From monumental history, “He learns… that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.” (UM 69) Monumental history is clumsy in the eyes of a slave to truth, to be sure, but that is no objection if it produces its “mighty effect”: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UM 69)
History combines with language to oppose experimentation—this occurs in the form of books. “Books,” Emerson once famously wrote, “are for the scholar’s idle hours”, and it is no accident that Emerson begins “Self-Reliance” by drawing a moral about reading. “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain.” (E&L 259) This last sentence, praising sentiment over thoughts, is at the crux of the experimental relationship to books. To read books for thoughts is just another way to read them for received truths, and the danger of interpreting too closely is that one ends up with only thoughts and not sentiments. A sentiment, by contrast, will not lead to imitation or conformity, but to new, original action, if only one follows the sentiment. Deleuze and Guattari, in another elaboration of the relation of experiment to interpretation, write, “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities.” (ATP 4) A book, or any writing, is to transmit intensities, not interpretable thoughts.
F. Biography. We have reached the final opponent of experimentation, and the most dangerous and inescapable. We act, perhaps we even experiment once, and suddenly this comes to burden us like a promise we did not expect to make. We are now expected to act consistently with our past actions. Even if the experiment failed (and we take this as an answer and not a judgment), it is binding on us. Even more so if the experiment succeeds. Ultimately it is our own past that claps upon us the tightest shackles. In part, this is due to society, for others form their expectations of our actions on the basis of our pasts—“the eyes of others have no data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” (E&L 265) Emerson, as in the case of misunderstanding (which in fact occurs in the same portion of the essay), waves away this worry quickly. “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?” (E&L 265) And then comes perhaps Emerson’s single most famous quote (and thus also his most often misquoted quote): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (E&L 265) Better to contradict what one said yesterday than to make oneself a slave.
When Emerson waves away a problem, you can expect that it is one that especially vexes Emerson—he is at his most emphatic and inspiring precisely where he doubts the most. And indeed this is the most difficult opponent to overcome. In some fashion, we are supposed to let the present bring the past into judgment. And Emerson is confident that, if we do so, we will find, beneath the surface inconsistency, a deeper consistency. “There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour.” (E&L 266) But Emerson’s confidence admits of skepticism at its margins.
What both of the last two opponents—which more or less encompass all of the others—share is a particular relationship to time, in particular the past. The proper relation to time for the experimenter is, instead, to be outside of it. Emerson praises the roses under his window, for they “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” (E&L 270) It is impossible for humans to be perfectly out of time—Nietzsche well understands why. His essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life begins with an image of cattle, unable to explain their own forgetfulness—because they always forget what they want to say. Against this, man “wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” (UM 61) Humans are historical animals, and that is why any human overcoming of the past—one’s own or the past of the entire species—will require something other than a mere forgetting or ignorance of it.
Yet if humans cannot exist outside of time, untimeliness still remains possible. Emerson floats an intriguing theory about the human experience of time. For him, it is fundamentally constituted by two sorts of human action: “But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.” (E&L 270) Postponing and remembering—these two feeble acts create time for us, and insofar as we overcome them we stand outside of time, in the realm of the untimely. Nietzsche, somewhere in his essay on history, suggests that all great thinkers exist contemporaneously in the untimely sphere, and Deleuze, also somewhere whose location I cannot pinpoint, speaks of his early works on past philosophers as encounters in the untimely dimension, conversations occurring across time. But of the three, Emerson gives the idea the most beautiful expression, at the end of his book The Conduct of Life:
There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones,—they alone with him alone. (E&L 1123-1124)
For all Emerson praises the individual and the present, he thinks it provides an avenue into the past, allows conversation with the past. Just as overcoming foolish consistency will lead to a deeper consistency, so will experimentation in the present lead to the rediscovery of old truths and virtues, truths and virtues that were lost when their formal expression became a rigid code or custom. “Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it to-day because it is not of to-day. We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.” (E&L 266)
This should answer any worries about the right of this philosophy to be called experimental. For, in calling something experimental, we must recognize that we do so on analogy with scientific experiments, whose hallmark is replication—the ability to be replicated. But when Emerson praises experimentation, he seems to decry replication: do not imitate the experiments of others. He has a simple reason for this: your soul is different from another’s, you could not replicate their experiment if you tried, since you are lacking an essential material. But in fact, experimentation and self-reliance do lead to a form of replication. “Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.” (E&L 266) You will discover the same virtue and same truths as every other experimenter.
In this way, experimentation is opposed to progressivism. “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” (E&L 279) Probably the most honest progressivist, B.F. Skinner, wrote, somewhere in his truly abominable novel Walden Two, that people in the Walden Two community have better things to do than be geniuses. Experimentation praises accident, what cannot be planned in advance, and tolerates failure well. Skinner, by contrast, hates accident, plans as much as he can, and does not respond well to failure, wants as much as possible to eliminate it. Skinner wants progress, and to make things better. Emerson does not oppose amelioration, as he calls it, but his interest is in great individuals, and there, “There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were.” (E&L 280) For Emerson, there is nothing but replication, endless replication in every individual up to the task. In this way, Emerson achieves a philosophy of originality that can sit side by side with the truth captured in our phrase, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
§4. The becoming self
Emerson suggests that there is something godlike about the self-reliant: “And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!” (E&L 274) This notion of being yoked to a simple purpose as to iron necessity is crucial to Emerson’s thought. Emerson’s is, at root, a philosophy of human freedom. For Emerson, freedom is inseparable from necessity. The person who is self-reliant does not really have a choice, for the dictates of their self lie on them with all the force of necessity. The less strong this necessity, the less free the individual.
But at this point, we must ask just what this self on which we are to rely is. And Emerson tells us, quite explicitly: “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.” (E&L 271) This is the most fascinating element of Emerson’s experimental philosophy, and one that cannot be overlooked. The self is not something stable, not something pre-existing on which one can rely. The self is rather constructed in the process of self-reliance. Power lies in the moment of transition to a new state, but that new state by definition does not exist until after the transition takes place. Self-reliance thus runs up against the problem that there is no stable self on which to rely. And Emerson is aware of this: “Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.” (E&L 271-2) As Deleuze puts it somewhere in Negotiations (I found it again here): “It’s a strange business, speaking for yourself, in your own name, because it doesn’t at all come with seeing yourself as an ego or a person or a subject. Individuals find a real name for themselves, rather, only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them.”
The philosophy of experiment is, then, a sort of egoism. It can never escape this charge. But it is a very special sort of egoism, one that goes on in the absence of a stable self, an egoism of selflessness.
E&L: Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America
UM: Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, published by Cambridge
D: Nietzsche’s Daybreak, published by Cambridge
ATP: Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, published by University of Minnesota
Yesterday, I began reading Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, a non-trivial lacuna in my Nietzsche reading to this point. I have not finished it, but I want to look at a movement that is already occurring in Nietzsche’s text—a movement I do not fully understand yet. This post is my attempt to go some way toward making sense of it. Specifically, I want to understand the relation between the private and the social in The Anti-Christ. I am using the Penguin Classics edition of Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, which contains the Hollingdale translation of both works.
I want to start, not with Nietzsche, but with a fascinating suggestion by Gilles Deleuze, in his essay “Literature and Life” (found in Essays Critical and Clinical). He writes:
The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health or this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this people who are missing… (4)
The reason I start here is that I think, on this point, Deleuze is not all that far from Nietzsche’s own self-understanding of his project. Nietzsche’s 1878 book, Human, All Too Human is subtitled, “A Book for Free Spirits”. When the book was reprinted in 1886, Nietzsche wrote a new preface discussing this subtitle. A lengthy quote from this preface (from the Faber translation, University of Nebraska Press):
Whoever guesses something of the consequences of any deep suspicion, something of the chills and fears stemming from isolation, to which every man burdened with an unconditional difference of viewpoint is condemned, this person will understand […] why, when I could not find what I needed, I had to gain it by force artificially, to counterfeit it, or to create it poetically. (And what have poets ever done otherwise? And why else do we have all the art in the world?) What I always needed most to cure and restore myself, however, was the belief that I was not the only one to be thus, to see thus—I needed the enchanting intuition of kinship and equality in the eye and in desire, repose in a trusted friendship… (§1)
Thus I invented, when I needed them, the “free spirits” too, to whom this heavyhearted-stouthearted book with the title “Human, All Too Human” is dedicated. There are no such “free spirits,” were none—but, as I said, I needed their company at the time, to be of good cheer in the midst of bad things (illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity); as brave fellows and specters to chat and laugh with, when one feels like chatting and laughing, and whom one sends to hell when they get boring—as reparation for lacking friends. That there could someday be such free spirits, that our Europe will have such lively, daring fellows among its sons of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, real and palpable and not merely, as in my case, phantoms and a hermit’s shadow play: I am the last person to want to doubt that. I already see them coming, slowly, slowly; and perhaps I am doing something to hasten their coming when I describe before the fact that fateful conditions that I see giving rise to them, the paths on which I see them coming? (§2)
Here we see Nietzsche explicitly admit that the “free spirits” to whom his book was addressed were non-existent, were his own creation. They are a people who did not yet exist, though Nietzsche saw them coming. (Nietzsche is careful to cast their coming as inevitable, and to minimize his role as, at best, a hastening of their coming, but we might wonder whether or not this is a false modesty. And yes, Nietzsche was capable of modesty when he needed it.) This may also help us understand his claim that he was born posthumously (from the foreword to The Anti-Christ: “Some are born posthumously”)—Nietzsche will not be born until after he dies, for his people will not be born until then, the free spirits that he invented.
The foreword to The Anti-Christ begins, “This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet.” In the first section of the book proper, Nietzsche begins, “Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans.” A helpful note to my edition states that the Hyperboreans were, in Greek mythology, “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” In these two quotes, I think Nietzsche is making it clear that he is addressing his book to a specific people, a people opposed to “modern man,” the man who sighs, “I know not which way to turn; I am everything that knows not which way to turn” (§1). It is an interpretive question I am not qualified to answer whether or not the Hyperboreans of The Anti-Christ are the same as the “free spirits” of Human, All Too Human. What I can say with some confidence is that Nietzsche is here again in the business of inventing the people to whom his book is addressed.
The book takes as a negative task the condemnation of Christianity: this task is emphasized when, in the book’s final section, Nietzsche writes, “– With that I have done and pronounce my judgment. I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered” (§62). But, it seems to me, this negative task is not the sole task of the book, and possibly not even the main task—a possibility we should take very seriously given Nietzsche’s continual stressing of affirmation over negation, and of the value of looking away from what is ugly. If Nietzsche in this work does not look away, there must be some positive task, and I take that positive task to be the creation of his Hyperborean people.
Throughout the portion of the book I have read, Nietzsche consistently highlights that he is critiquing Christianity from a particular perspective—in this sense, the very act of critique reveals not just the flaws of Christianity, but what the critical perspective takes to be virtuous. The negative and positive tasks are thus inseparable, and so the final act of pronouncing judgment is equally a positive affirmation of the perspective from which the judgment comes. In condemning Christianity, Nietzsche sets himself and his Hyperboreans positive tasks. It is these that I wish to understand, though here I may achieve only the asking of a few pertinent questions.
I will proceed by looking first at what speaks to privacy in the first 18 sections of the book (what I have thus far read), and then I will look to what seems inherently social. Following that, I shall try to make some sense of where things stand.
In §4, Nietzsche suggests that a “higher type of man”, a type that stands opposed to collective humanity, has at times been realized by particular individuals, but only by chance, as a “lucky hit.” Nietzsche then characterizes the depravity/décadence of an individual as the loss of instinct, as the preference of what is harmful to it (§6). In §11, against Kant as a moralist, Nietzsche writes,
A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity: in any other sense it is merely a danger. […] The profoundest laws of preservation and growth demand the reverse of this [= “impersonal and universal” duty & virtue]: that each one of us should devise his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. […] What destroys more quickly than to work, to think, to feel without inner necessity, without a deep personal choice, without joy? as an automaton of ‘duty’? It is virtually a recipe for décadence, even for idiocy…
Here, then, is the personal aspect of Nietzsche’s view: individual higher men are to be produced; décadent individuals have lost their instinct for life; individuals must create their own virtues. These are the classic individualist themes in Nietzsche. But there is a more social side to the work as well, which is first seen in his very need to address it to a group of kindred spirits.
Thus Nietzsche speaks of the “formula of our happiness” (§1), of the “first principle of our philanthropy” (§2), and he characterizes a collective task: “To be physician here, to be inexorable here, to wield the knife here – that pertains to us, that is our kind of philanthropy, with that are we philosophers, we Hyperboreans!” (§7). Theologians are characterized as “our antithesis” (§8). Intermixed with what I (quite selectively) quoted from §11 is the following: “A people perishes if it mistakes its own duty for the concept of duty in general.” The whole of §14 is dedicated to illustrating the ways in which “we have learned better” what are the criteria for reality and unreality.
Thus we have, on the one hand what is personal and individual, and on the other hand what is institutional and social. How do these relate? Specifically, what is the relation between a people and a person: what is their relation in terms of values especially? In §3, Nietzsche sets out his primary problem:
The problem I raise here is not what ought to succeed mankind in the sequence of species (– the human being is a conclusion –): but what type of human being one ought to breed, ought to will, as more valuable, more worthy of life, more certain of the future.
This more valuable type has existed often enough already: but as a lucky accident, as an exception, never as willed. He has rather been the most feared, he has hitherto been virtually the thing to be feared – and out of fear the reverse type has been willed, bred, achieved: the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal man – the Christian…
This goes some way to illuminating the relationship. Let me start by looking at what Nietzsche wants to take down: Christianity. As I read this passage, Nietzsche is suggesting that Christianity as an institution has served to breed Christians as individuals—sick individuals. Christianity as an institution is thus inimical to the cultivation of higher types of individuals—though of course Nietzsche recognized that the higher type had been achieved at times within Christian culture, despite having never been willed.
This suggests some clarification of the relationship between the Hyperboreans and the higher type. The Hyperboreans, as physicians, have the task of setting up social institutions that will breed the higher type. They are to create a context in which the higher type will be willed rather than feared. Nietzsche’s view is thus not solely for individuals: he really does wish to see the arising of a particular people.
But a tension still remains. Nietzsche seems to slide back and forth between peoples and persons. Thus, in §11, he suggests that each individual must have find his own categorical imperative, but then speaks of a people mistaking its particular duty for duty-in-itself. He moves from virtue as something fundamentally individual (think of the private virtue of Zarathustra) to something that characterizes a people. He extends this thought in §16, where he discusses the creation of Gods: “A people which still believes in itself still also has its own God.” The Jews have their God, for which they are the chosen people; Christians by contrast have a cosmopolitan God—a degeneration of the Israelites’ God. Gods are something social; they reflect the belief of a culture in itself—or the loss of that belief in a “perishing” people.
Another complication ensues when we look at §13, where Nietzsche writes:
Let us not undervalue this: we ourselves, we free spirits, are already a ‘revaluation of all values’, an incarnate declaration of war and victory over all ancient conceptions of ‘true’ and ‘untrue’. […] We have had the whole pathos of mankind against us – its conception of what truth ought to be; every ‘thou shalt’ has hitherto been directed against us…. Our objectives, our practices, our quiet, cautious, mistrustful manner – all this appeared utterly unworthy and contemptible to mankind.
In my prior understanding of Nietzsche—in keeping with what I quoted earlier about each individual having his own categorical imperative—I understood the revaluation of all values as an individual task. Here, however, Nietzsche sees it as a social one, one incarnated in all Hyperboreans.
What am I to take away from this? On the one hand, Nietzsche is an individualistic philosopher, but there seems to be a social element to his thought that I did not previously appreciate. Is this to be understood as the need to create a culture with institutions that promote the development of the higher type, that will the higher type? Is it to be seen as recognition that the highest creative movements that Nietzsche recognizes can be instantiated at the level of peoples and not just in individuals? Are Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans themselves individuals of the higher type, or mere breeders of the higher type? How does the duty of a people relate to the duty of an individual? If Gods are creations of peoples, then they reflect public, shared virtues—how do public and shared virtues interact with private virtues? What is the implication of the Hyperboreans being a creation of Nietzsche the individual have for all of this?
I do not know the answers to these questions—I hope that when I have completed the book I shall have gained some insight. I would, of course, appreciate any suggestions from readers familiar with Nietzsche’s thought.
There is one sentence in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” that American scholarship, and academic scholarship more generally, abhors above all others. Emerson writes therein: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Reading, as Emerson conceives it, is or ought to be a fundamentally creative act. For Emerson, there is this form of creative reading (what I will call Emersonian reading), and then there is a second, more scholastic form of reading, which I will call academic reading. This post constitutes my attempts to come to grip with these two distinct ways of reading from the perspective of someone who intends to enter the academy, and who can expect to do a great deal of academic reading over the remaining course of his life.
Emerson expands on his conception of reading as follows:
There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s. (Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, p. 59)
In my post from earlier today, I discussed at some length the tension between conformity and creativity as Emerson handles it. Creativity for Emerson is grasping the divine nature of the world, which a person can do only singularly: there is no way methodically repeat the actions necessary to grasp it. Certainly I cannot imitate anyone else and hope to succeed—that is conformity. But even self-imitation is impossible. Say I manage one creative act. If I try to repeat it, I am simply copying myself, and that is no better than copying another. A creative, liberating act, when repeated, becomes stifling and imprisoning, no matter from whom it originated.
Emerson in the passage above is suggesting that in reading, say Plato or Shakespeare, we can be creative, can grasp the spiritual laws behind the material world. But he also says that we cannot work our to creativity from a basis of imitation. Creative reading cannot, then, be a reproduction in our minds of thoughts formulated in the mind of another. If, in reading Plato, I am to grasp the divine, then, as I read Plato’s words, I must have a thought that is in some sense my own and not Plato’s. Alternatively, they may be seen as the same thought, but grasped differently. Either way, the reading requires my own input: I am not passively receiving wisdom from the author.
My prior posts on Emerson have in part been explorations of the way that Emerson exemplifies his own ideal of creative reading. I have focused on the ways that Emerson takes the words of other authors—including himself!—and positions himself as agreeing with them while nevertheless using their words in distinctly Emersonian ways.
These same posts, which explore Emersonian reading in this sense, can also be seen as embodying the opposite trend of academic reading. In academic reading, one tries to get at the heart of what another says, to ascertain its true (if not necessarily univocal and unambiguous) meaning, and to assess its truth-value (where applicable). In my posts, whether or not I succeed, I have tried to stick closely to Emerson, to elucidate what he thinks and to uncover the subtle rhetorical tools he utilizes to make his points vivid. I am, in short, producing academic readings of examples of Emersonian readings. The fact that I am producing such readings should suffice to indicate that I do not doubt the value of academic reading. While I hope in this post to elevate Emersonian reading (even as I fret about its place in the world and in the academy), I do not thereby mean to devalue academic reading.
I also suspect that Deleuze’s work in the history of philosophy is an instance of Emersonian reading. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, Deleuze states that in his readings he produces “monsters” (he describes the process in loving and smutty detail). He makes the thinkers with whom he engages come out as strange hybrids: Deleuze-Spinoza, Deleuze-Kant, etc. And yet, he insists, the process is not arbitrary: they must say everything he makes them say. While I have not directly engaged with Deleuze’s early historical works, his self-description of his works is a description of a sort of Emersonian reading. Deleuze dives into an author and finds Deleuze, but not through clear misreading. (Some might disagree on this last point; I am not competent to judge, obviously.)
As someone who is both fascinated by the prospects of Emersonian reading and who plans to enter the academy, I find myself frequently wondering what place there is in the academic world for Emersonian reading. As a general rule, I think it takes a fairly negative attitude toward this form of creative reading. This is seen in a variety of ways. One is the treatment of Emerson by academic philosophers, which doesn’t even rise to the level of hostility, but merely neglect. With Deleuze it is different: sometimes he is dismissed or ignored, but not systemically. But there is a striking incident that brings home the academic distrust of Emersonian reading. Deleuze changed his terminology from work to work, in part, I suspect, to stymy that form of reading. In an interview with John Protevi and another scholar (whose name escapes me), Deleuze scholar and philosopher of science Manuel Delanda comments on this tendency of Deleuze’s, saying that, as an analytic philosopher, he cannot tolerate such conceptual mayhem. In his (high quality) work on Deleuze, he imposes order by building a basic set of concepts that can span the whole of Deleuze’s work. In this way, he produces academic readings of Deleuze that are incredibly helpful in understanding how Deleuze treats science, but which can nonetheless feel like a form of betrayal. (Lest this seem like strong condemnation, I note that the Deleuze scholarship I’ve read that does not attempt such management of his conceptual apparatus is mostly dreadful.) I can add to the list the example of Nietzsche, who of course left the academy early in his career and was no doubt better for it. The case of Nietzsche is further interesting due to the ways he is sanitized when discussed in academic circles—even by those who protest his sanitization!
It makes sense that the academy would distrust Emersonian reading. It is bad enough to have to sort out Kant, Strawson’s Kant, Wood’s Kant, and Korsgaard’s Kant, let alone throwing into the mix Deleuze’s Deleuze-Kant and Emerson’s Emerson-Kant. Where boundaries between thinkers blur, where, say, Deleuze and Spinoza enter a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase), academic progress can seem to stall. Clear boundaries streamline the finding of solutions to problems, or at least contribute to a general clarification of the terrain. Emersonian reading seems to go against these academic virtues, and can even seem like a threatening encroachment of relativism (a charge that has been leveled at Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze alike). (Of course, relativism itself, in its various forms, is not inherently threatening—what is dangerous is relativism without the highest of standards. Of course all three of these thinkers insisted on such high standards, regardless of whether the label ‘relativist’ fits them well.)
There is one way that such reading makes its way into academic philosophy, though it is a somewhat tepid one. In his classic chapter on explanation (in The Scientific Image), Bas van Fraassen includes a section titled, “A Biased History,” in which he tells a self-consciously biased version of the history of the philosophy of scientific explanation. His goal in this is, as he puts it, to make his views on explanation seem like an inevitable result toward which previous scholarship has been progressing. This sort of progressivist tale (which forms an interesting counterpart to the postlapsarian tales I discussed this morning) is not at all believable as an academic history, but instead functions as a means for van Fraassen to carve out a space for his own creative addition to the debate. Van Fraassen is self-conscious about this, but the practice is hardly unique to him. As he says, all philosophers’ histories of philosophy are like this, by and large. But this is rather safe, all things considered, for the real interest lies not in the history but in what it makes space for. In a full-blooded Emersonian reading, however, there is no distinction between the “biased” reading and the space that this reading creates.
It is a serious question, in light of this, whether there is any real place in academic philosophy for this non-tepid form of philosophizing that takes creative reading as its wellspring. Perhaps it has a place at the margins, requiring the sanitizing work of scholars such as Delanda to be integrated into the natural order. It is certainly dangerous: when it prompts imitations by people without the talent or the original vision of an Emerson, the results are, as I said, horrid. (It exemplifies the dangers of anything goes relativism, that bogeyman in which no one believes, but which some nevertheless practice.)
[This post was prompted by a stimulating discussion I had with a friend who is well-versed in philosophy, but does not wish to be an academic philosopher, who expressed well-motivated skepticism about Emersonian reading and philosophizing and who got me fretting about the issue once again. Many thanks are due to him for the provocation.]
Every so often, I encounter a philosopher who provokes reflection on how to healthfully relate to works of art. I don’t need such provocation to reflect, generally speaking; what sets these philosophers apart is that they force me to reconsider the very idea of writing what I write here, usually with the result of imposing a bit of modesty. (There is no faster way for a philosopher to earn my respect than to reveal an understanding of and appreciation for the arts.) My previous post on this topic reflected an encounter with Hans-Georg Gadamer. In it, I attempted to come to grips with the motivation for writing about art when interpretive efforts necessarily fall short. This post reflects my more recent encounter with Gilles Deleuze (and, I somewhat shamefacedly admit, with an excellent essay on Deleuze by Daniel Smith, ch. 6), whose distinction between recognition and signs again calls into question the very act of writing about art in the way I do here, in an attempt to interpret, to lay hold of stable themes in a work and elucidate them. This may seem like a strange thing to take from Deleuze, who after all wrote a great deal about literature and other arts (a small portion of which I discussed here). Yet I think the challenge is there.
According to Smith’s essay, Deleuze follows Plato in drawing a distinction between two types of sensation. The first sort involves recognition (“this is a finger”), and in having such a sensation “there is nothing here which invites or excites intelligence” (Deleuze, quoted in Smith). The second sort of sensation Deleuze calls “signs” that cannot be recognized, but only encountered. In Deleuzian terms, they are “caught up in unlimited becoming” (Smith). It is this second sort of sensation that lies at the root of aesthetics.
When we encounter a sign, the natural inclination is to search for its meaning. Deleuze interprets Proust as having identified two temptations in this search. The first temptation is the objectivist temptation, in which one “seeks for the meaning of the sign in the object emitting it” (Smith). The second is the subjectivist temptation, in which one “seeks their meaning in a subjective association of ideas.” Both are misleading, are temptations to a sort of “sin”. It is the job of the work of art, for Deleuze, to reveal to us the nature of signs, to make their truth manifest.
So far, this seems in deep accord with the general viewpoint I’ve developed (on this blog and privately) on how we ought to relate to works of art. This includes my attempts to navigate between objectivity and subjectivity in the realm of aesthetics, as well as my earlier “Why Write About Art?” post that stressed the encounter with a work of art. And yet I find in this distinction between sensations that can be recognized and sensations that can only be encountered a deep challenge to the very idea of interpreting art in the way I frequently do here.
Smith gives a useful summation of the two primary characteristics of a sign: “The first is that the sign riots the soul, renders it perplexed, as if the encountered sign were the bearer of a problem. The second is that the sign is something that can only be felt or sensed” (emphasis in original). Against this, the recognized object can, indeed, be felt, but it “can also be remembered, imagined, conceived, and so on.” Deleuze conceives “the most general aim of art” (Smith) as producing sensations (signs, specifically). But this means that a work of art can only be experienced: it cannot be remembered, imagined, conceived, etc.
What is an interpretation but just such an attempt to remember, imagine, conceive, etc.? In my earlier post I worried that interpretation always falls short of the work itself—with Deleuze’s ideas in view this worry intensifies: interpretation may do violence to the work of art, not by being a bad interpretation, but by being an interpretation at all. In trying to recognize aspects of the work of art (e.g. X is a symbol for Y), the experience of art as a sign is necessarily lost. Even interpretation that explicitly sets out to respect the status of art as a sign seems to be violent in this way: in tracing out the way a work forces certain sorts of experiences on those who encounter it, the interpretation functions as a recollection, a remembrance, and in that way does injustice to just what it proposes to respect. (An example of this sort of interpretation is Ray Carney’s work on the films of John Cassavetes.)
At their best, my interpretations might achieve something like this second sort of interpretation, tracing out the ways that particular works force the viewer to have uncomfortable, because new, experiences. But many of them are firmly in the first camp, based around finding themes. Perhaps they are not so egregious as that dreadfully dull sort of interpretation that delineates how symbol X stands for Y—I hope to write a post soon critiquing an interpretation of Tarkovsky’s Stalker on just such grounds—but nonetheless they are interpretations that still find themselves purely in the recognition camp.
Perhaps this seems like an abstract philosophical issue, and nothing more. But there is a real worry that in trying to interpret works of art we will approach them in different ways than we would otherwise. Because interpretation of the sort I’ve discussed is so wedded to recognition, it carries with it the threat that the function of the work of art as a sign will be lost. I can speak for no one but myself on this point, but this threat materializes when I watch films or read books with an eye to interpreting. Instead of experiencing the movements of a work, I latch onto those aspects I can recognize and thereby kill the experience.
What justification can there be, then, for the work I do on this blog? My self-defense will perhaps be meager. It is true that interpretation does violence to the work interpreted, but this may be done in service of experiencing the work. I write these blog posts primarily for myself, but by putting them in public I offer them up to others as well, and my hope is that they may feed back into my own and others’ experiences of works of art. No one is born knowing how to read, and even in the purportedly literate world the number of people who are able to really read a book—which means: follow its movements, experience what it offers—is low. (And the same goes for looking at paintings, watching films, and so forth.) I do not count myself among this group, except on rare happy occasions. To follow a work takes strenuous work on the part of the subject experiencing it—the work is not just done by the artist crafting the work (I recently wrote on this topic). My hope is that such blog posts as I write may be helpful to those seeking to follow the works I discuss. This can only happen if my posts are not taken as guided tours (which remains in the recognition model), but rather as signposts: look closely here, notice this connection, but know it is only one among many. Ultimately, they exist to be forgotten: they do not matter if you are able to go to the work and experience it yourself.
I have been presenting an ultimately very negative view of interpretation: it is a Wittgensteinian ladder to be kicked away once you have climbed over the wall. But I think Deleuze’s view also makes room for a positive view of interpretation, which Deleuze’s work, at its best, realizes. (The essays discussed in my post, Deleuze’s American Dream, exemplify this realization.) In the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari make the following remark: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities.” This quote encapsulates what happens when a sign is encountered: the sign transmits an intensity to the one who encounters it. Interpretation that is truly vital, that is not simply an aid to the experience of art, to be kicked away and forgotten when no longer needed, is interpretation that itself transmits intensities, just as a work of art would. In a sense, it should not be dependent on the work of art. Deleuze’s interpretation of Melville, though fascinating as an interpretation, and useful for those who would experience Melville, ultimately relies on concepts that have a life independent of the work of Melville, that have their own intensity. It is an electric work in its own right, albeit a work of philosophy rather than a work of art.
There is, then, a place for interpretations that hunt down the meaning of a work of art—but only if such interpretations are recognized to be severely limited, mere useful tools and not ends in themselves. If not recognized to be such, then they ultimately serve to prevent any experience of the signs they discuss. The same goes for interpretations that trace out the contours of the experience of encountering a particular work. But while interpretation of this sort has utility, we can aspire to a form of interpretation that is self-sufficient, that is attached to a particular work in name only, but which transmits its own intensities.