Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.
Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)
There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.
One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)
One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.
An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.
So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.
And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)
No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.
One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.
Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)
It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:
Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)
In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)
This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.
The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.
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.
This post will be much more rewarding if you first read and reflect upon Robert Frost’s poem “To the Thawing Wind”. (It will also be more rewarding if you’ve read either of James Joyce’s last two novels, but I won’t insist on that one.)
In a variety of posts, I’ve tried to push the notion of art as a serious form of inquiry into the possibilities of being alive and human in various times and conditions, following up on a rich suggestion by David Foster Wallace. I urge this in opposition to the positions of those such as Alexander Rosenberg, who argues that fiction is merely fun, but makes no contribution to knowledge. While Rosenberg might not see it as such, I think this amounts to a denigration of art, amounts to seeing it as dispensable, alongside attempts to make sense of what art offers to us. He mitigates this conclusion by suggesting that, while science and naturalistic philosophy can do without art, that does not mean human beings can do without it. I think this is exactly backwards. While science may be able to do without art (Catharine Z. Elgin has argue to the contrary, though I found her position rather lukewarm), insofar as a naturalistic philosophy wants to address the Kantian question “what should I do” (or its Nietzschean/Deleuzean variants, phrased in terms of modes of existence), it must take art seriously. On the flip side, human beings may be able to do without art—and this we learn from art itself. Indeed, part of what it means for a naturalistic philosophy to take art seriously is to recognize the very real possibility that we could entirely do without art.
This post is my exploration of this possibility, through the explicit lens of Frost and the implicit lens of Joyce. The Frost poem linked at the start of this post explores the idea explicitly. The poet invokes the thawing wind of spring, which will bring the birds & the flowers and will free the brown earth from white snow. These tasks of the wind at first seem like orders—do this, do that, do the other—but they are soon revealed to be more like acknowledgments of the wind’s busy schedule. Why acknowledge these impersonal tasks of the wind? Because the poet has a personal request, a favor the wind can do for him, a favor that he needs the wind to do for him. “But whate’er you do tonight, / bathe my window, make it flow, / Melt it as the ice will go”.
What happens when the wind melts the window? It will “Run the rattling pages o’er; / Scatter poems on the floor; / Turn the poet out of door.” What the poet is invoking the wind to do is precisely to disrupt his poetry, to turn him outside so that he might experience nature directly. This happens when nature bursts into his surroundings, his shelter. We can imagine the wind not granting his request, with the result that he stays inside. He is inviting nature to confront him, to give him no choice in the matter, for if he can choose he will stay in, working on his poems. I cannot help but see here a pun in Robert Frost writing a poem about the thawing wind turning the poet out of door: what is the object of the wind’s thawing but the frost? With this pun in mind, the real request is that the wind thaw not only the ground but also the poet.
Why should the poet imagine nature disrupting poetry? If one function of art is exploring modes of existence, possibilities for being alive, then a fundamental problem that art must face is the distinction between recognizing a possibility and fulfilling it. To know that such and such possibility for being human exists is not to manifest that possibility in your own life. Seen in this way, then, art is an intermediary, and we can imagine skipping over it, moving directly into the mode of existence it envisions. “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” Emerson wrote (“The American Scholar”). Experiencing a poem about the richness of nature is not experiencing the richness of nature. Nor, to impale Emerson on his own sword, is reading an essay about “Nature”. I imagine Emerson walking willingly and with great dignity onto this sword he has prepared.
Reflection on the content of works of art may make this more plausible. The modes of existence explored by art are rarely modes of existence in which one is wrapped up in art. Here I want to take Joyce as an example. I have long considered writing a post, half serious and half in jest, titled “Joyce’s (elitist) undermining of elitism.” Literature has always been for the elite (in social status, which of course I do not confuse with real worth) in that (written) literature is by default accessible primarily to the literate. Even with the increase in literacy (part of) the world now enjoys, there is still literature that confines itself to the elite. Joyce falls into this camp: his work, at least his later work, is accessible only to those willing not just to read it but to study it, to struggle through it.
While this is indisputably the case, we must nonetheless consider the nature of Joyce’s characters, particularly his heroes. Leopold Bloom is an intelligent and educated man, to be sure, but to call him “erudite” would be going too far. He is not the type of person who would read Ulysses, though he might use its pages for toilet paper. (Not out of disrespect, mind!) Yet he is, more clearly than anyone else in Joyce’s oeuvre, healthy. Stephen Dedalus certainly is not; he is much more likely to read Ulysses than Bloom. Nor is Gabriel Conroy—indeed, all of the characters of Dubliners are paralyzed in one way or another. I confess, my forays into Finnegans Wake are insufficient to say whether HCE or ALP can be called healthy. Probably they can. What matters, in any event, is that Leopold Bloom is cast again and again in heroic terms in a book that he would almost surely never read.
If we want to give the book its due, then I think we have to take this fact into account. Ulysses is an exploration of a mode of existence—Bloom’s—that does not have time for or interest in books like Ulysses. What does that say about the readers of Ulysses? That they are not Leopold Bloom, for one. And what does that mean? It means that, in recognizing the heroism of Bloom, we have to recognize as the flip side of that the possibility that Ulysses is dispensable. When we consider the juxtaposition in the book of Bloom and Stephen—Stephen who would read Ulysses and develop crazy theories about it, as he did for Hamlet—this thought should only strengthen.
Of course, I do not believe that art should stop existing. Nor did Joyce see no need for Ulysses, nor did Frost disavow his own poetry. The very fact of their art’s existence speaks against that belief. What these two examples (and, though I discussed it less, the example also of Emerson’s corpus) reveal is that art exists in a strange tension with the thought of its disappearance—indeed it may be the secret task of art to make us, as readers, viewers, listeners, etc., mindful of the possibility of its disappearance. Mindful of this possibility, moreover, not as a loss, but as a gain.
[I must acknowledge the influence of Richard Poirier on this post—his book The Renewal of Literature first got me to take seriously the idea of the disappearance of literature. The discovery of this idea in the poetry of Frost and of its implicit presence in Joyce, as well as its relation to Rosenberg, however, are my own.]
The general tenor of the “free will” debate, both today and in days past, revolves around issues of determinism and causality: if our actions are entirely the result of physical, insensate matter, then it seems we cannot be said to make free choices. Since moral responsibility is further said to depend on just this ability to make free choices, quite a bit is at stake. To save freedom, we apparently need to posit some mysterious causal influence that is not physical, but instead stems from our will, conceived as a thing. Or we can renounce freedom. (Or we can find some tepid compatibilist position, as most philosophers do.) These seem to exhaust our options. Physics and neuroscience have, as it were, taken human freedom hostage.
Philosophically, there is much to quibble with in this picture. For instance, one could argue (and I would argue) that it is only a quite mistaken analysis of phrases like “I did X, but I could have acted differently” that can make moral responsibility depend upon the results of various scientific disciplines. (I say the analysis is mistaken in that it is untrue to our actual use of such phrases, which are not sensitive to the results of science in the relevant ways.) One might also wonder what it means to say the universe is deterministic. I think I know what it means for a scientific theory to be deterministic, but I am quite sure I have no idea what it means for the universe itself to be deterministic. And, in any case, I think it’s clear determinism isn’t the real issue. Fundamental physical theory is no longer deterministic, but that’s no great relief for anybody. Indeterministic theories may still account for behavior (of particles or people). What really drives the debate is the contention on one side (taken as threatening by the other) that scientific theories, deterministic or not, are sufficient to fully account for our behavior. (We might ask what it means to “fully account for” something, which seems suspiciously related to the suspicious notion of a “complete” theory, but carrying out this line of inquiry would distract me from my real goals.)
This seems to be the heart of the issue. Saving human freedom seems to require positing a special region of the universe not open to empirical study, and that is surely a losing battle. But even if it weren’t a losing battle, I think the battle is still lost. If there is supposed to be this special region is that there is some non-physical causal force, then we should start asking of this force: well, is it deterministic, or indeterministic, or random? None of the options seem friendly to freedom. If this battleground is where human freedom is to be saved, the battleground of the will as a causal force, then the battle seems lost from the outset.
Since I think the notion of human freedom is a rich notion worth saving, I face the question of where it should actually be located. In my previous post, on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I spoke of Mabel Longhetti’s “freedom”, the flip side of which was her instability. I want to use that discussion as a jumping off point for exploring why I think art is especially apt to address questions of human freedom and to work out what this means about how we ought to relate to works of art.
In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel’s freedom lies in her relation to social conventions and clichés. Against them, she violates personal reaction bubbles, invites strangers to dance with her, and lets her daughter run naked around male children (I estimate the various kids’ ages as falling in the 8-12 range). Her violation of these norms—through a purity of ethical vision made possible only by her ignorance of the content of said norms—makes her seem crazy to others: Margaret, Dr. Zepp, etc. What is really going on, however, is that her freedom has an unhealthy side to it: she does not know how to live in a world where such norms are a driving force, and she is rendered unstable by it. That is why she breaks down when Dr. Zepp arrives to take her to the asylum: she is terrified and cannot handle herself.
Because this freedom has its unhealthy side, the natural question to ask is whether this same freedom is attainable in a healthful manner. Mabel’s freedom unsuits her for the actual world—must this sort of freedom always have this effect? And if it does, could we want freedom? (For what it’s worth, I think we could: Mabel’s position seems to me infinitely more desirable than Margaret’s.) What causes her instability is her inability to understand and respect (which does not mean obey) these norms. Her freedom makes no use of them, and they end up confronting her only as a mysterious and terrifying other.
The question whether healthy freedom is attainable thus becomes: can such norms be respected and understood without sacrificing freedom altogether? In the film, we see Nick (Mabel’s wife) struggling with just this. He respects these norms too much, is too concerned about his image and about how other people will misunderstand Mabel’s actions (which he claims, believably, to understand). This limits his freedom and poisons (non-lethally, though the threat is there) his relationship with Mabel. But Nick does have his moments of healthful freedom, namely when he is alone with Mabel. But they are only moments, and come, I wager, from his interactions with Mabel and not from himself. In the world of A Woman Under the Influence, then, such healthful freedom seems to be always under threat.
Looking outside of the film, I think we find in Nietzsche (a scathing critic of the notion of freedom of the will) and Emerson a model for such healthful freedom. In Emerson we find the person who can trope such conventions, twisting them to her own ends. Each such act of troping involves creative freedom that threatens to regress into cliché, and must itself be troped if it isn’t to become repressive. In Nietzsche, we are given the camel-lion-child progression: first one bears the heavy burden of established values, then one throws them off, and finally the child creates new values. Crucial to this is the first phase, in which such values are not only understood and respected, but obeyed. The lion phase undoes the obedience, but the understanding and respect remain, no longer yielding laws to be obeyed, but instead furnishing resources for the child’s re-valuation of all values. Read in an Emersonian light, these three metamorphoses no longer become distinct phases through which one passes, each stage superseding the last, but rather a cycle. Each revaluation threatens to become a load or burden of its own, which needs to be thrown off in its own right. Childhood passes right back into camelhood.
(Aside: I will not attempt here to argue that this is Nietzsche’s understanding of the three metamorphoses. I will note only that they are presented in part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Since the dramatic movement of that book significantly involves Zarathustra coming to reinterpret or revalue his early speeches and behavior, my interpretation is not ruled out by the presentation of the three metamorphoses as successive stages. Of course, close reading would be needed to establish that my interpretation is a viable one. I will also say, defensively I admit, that the value of such a cyclic conception of the three metamorphoses does not depend on it being found in Nietzsche.)
In Cassavetes, Nietzsche, and Emerson, we see an exploration of freedom as standing opposed, not to determinism, but to repression. Cassavetes is involved in the creation of scenarios that reveal the relevant differences between freedom and repression. Nietzsche and Emerson, for their part, create the concepts (circles, Over-soul, Genius, Übermensch, gay science, eternal recurrence, camel-lion-child, etc.) that allow us to recognize freedom and repression of this sort as they confront us. These are not scientific experiments and concepts, helpful in prediction and control of human behavior, but aesthetic experiments and philosophical concepts that allow us to go on in healthier ways.
I certainly do not mean to claim that, between them, Nietzsche, Emerson, and Cassavetes have exhausted the question of human freedom. I use them as examples because they show that there is an interesting notion of human freedom that has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of the will, where the opposition is not between freedom and causation but between freedom and repression. I also think they reveal a sense of freedom whose fate is not beholden to the results of science. Scientific questions are, by and large, irrelevant to the question of Mabel’s freedom and its pitfalls. Of course, scientific inquiry may here play a subservient role as handmaiden to the arts and the philosophies, but it too provides resources to be used much more than answers to the core questions.
I think this allows us to see art as, in one of its functions, as a form of serious inquiry. Of course, this is not its only function, but it is an important one, and one that should be taken seriously. David Foster Wallace once said that art is about locating and resuscitating the possibilities for being alive and human in dark times (if times are dark). This was a crucial task before the rise of modern science, and remains a crucial task after its rise. Of course, the rise of modern science changes the possibilities in all sorts of ways, and a responsible art will explore these ways and locate the new possibilities that have arisen and the old possibilities that have been closed off. Because the landscape of such possibilities is perpetually changing, the task itself is perpetual. If art, unlike science, does not progress, we may perhaps diagnose this difference as resulting not from the ineliminable subjectivity of art, but from the fact that, in the domain of art, unlike science, the truth changes over time.
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.