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Monday, December 31, 2012


I was driving 5 hours in a car so I was thinking some thought yesterday. Nothing too original. As I write it up I am sure I will come up with ideas I didn't think up in the car too. This will be the lecture for the first day of my graduate theory course:

How do we understand one another? That is the central question of literary theory and of the humanities generally.

Suppose we take Sophocles as an example. That is, what, the 400s BC, so 2,400 years ago. How do understand Sophocles, then? It would be amazing if we did!

Is the main difficulty linguistic? No, we understand his language fine. (Not me, but others.) Translation is a good metaphor for understanding and misunderstanding, but do we really think if we just had better translations, the problems would disappear?

One answer would be historicist. We should understand Sophocles as he himself understood himself, or as an Ancient Greek around the same time did. Sounds good, but some problems arise. For example, we don't perfectly understand our own contemporaries. I couldn't point to Lorca's contemporaries as a group of people who have understood him, so bridging the historical gap doesn't quit do it. Secondly, we know that it is possible to understand an author better than she understood herself. Say we have a letter written during the 1st world war. We understand things beyond the scope of the letter writer. For example, that there would be second world war. Understanding unfolds in time. Thirdly, we are still bringing in our present day concerns, our current horizon of expectation, even when we think we are being rigidly historical in our thinking. We cannot really do otherwise. This is easy to see if we look at past attempts to be historicist. Someone writing about Sophocles in the 18th century will sound a lot more 18th century than Sophoclean. Fourthly, we are not interested in the past for its own sake, but because it is still meaningful to us.

The second approach would be presentist. Now we are less concerned with the past as such, and more with what interests us now. These approaches might seem more honest, but once again a problem arises. The past becomes just a kind of token or currency to tell us about what we already think we know. Now we are just subjecting the past to an ideological critique based on our superior knowledge.

(The New Historicism is a kind of presentism pretending to be a historicism?)

A third approach is universalist. Now we assume that the difference between present and past simply doesn't matter. There are universal things about the "human condition" that persist, and we can see what Sophocles is telling us about these things. This approach is favored by right-wing cretins and should not concern us here. It is also a kind of presentism, but one favored by the right rather than by the left.

So the approach I would like to follow is based on Gadamer's notion of the "in between." Understanding takes place between those two places, present and past, and cannot be grounded on either one. Once we think we're talking only about the past, or the present, we become blind to inbetweennness.

Now let's forget about present and past and think about other differences. Two cultures existing at the same time but in different places (or in the same place, or in juxtaposition). Two opposing ideologies. Two genders. Two people married to each other who don't "understand" each other. In all these cases, what is at stake is the possibility of understanding. Capisce?

Problems or central questions in all ares of theory stem from this metaquestion. For example, in feminist literary theory. The central question would be, what happens when we stop positing the male subject (constructed in a certain way) as a universal norm?

For Latin American literature, there is a set of questions concerning the interpretative frame to be used. Where does it come from: Paris? Vienna? New York? Quito? What is its historical relation to the reality being studied? Is it a theory developed by Criollos to justify their own dominance? Is it a Lacanian theory borrowed by someone in Buenos Aires? Can it be indigenous, organic in Gramscian sense.

In my field, the question is how we can understand Spain and Spanish culture. The central question for peninsular Hispanism is what makes Spain distinctively itself, and not like some other European country? How do understand what it's all about? That's what I was doing in Apocryphal Lorca: contrasting my view of Lorca as an American Hispanist with, say, Allen Ginsberg's view of Lorca from the perspective of an American poet.

Theoretical disputes are all about choosing the model for understanding. Let's take Habermas. He says that there ought be a way of understanding one another by playing by the rules of discourse based on Enlightenment reason. So if Habermas is debating Gadamer, Foucault, or Derrida, there will be conflicts in the "understanding of understanding" itself.


My objection to psychoanalysis is that it's a kind of dumb hermeneutics, proposing easy explanations. It proposes a single theory for understanding when we ought to have multiple theories, and it assumes it is easier to have certainty regarding unconscious motives than conscious ones. Epistemologically, it's a disaster. We don't even know how Freud knew what he probably didn't know. I think you should be able to look at any theory and ask the basic hermeneutic questions of it. What does it mean to understand one another? How is this possible? How do we know what we know?


Thanks to all of you, the hits to this blog have more tripled from when I first started keeping track. December of 2012 was the biggest month so far. Happy new year.


Anonymous said...


I'm working on a culture course that is supposed to engage 500+ years of Lat Am and many more years of the Iberian Peninsula.

Am not yet sure how I will fit Spain in although due to time constraints we're probably only getting a couple of modules, one of which will be maps, to make the in-between point at that level.

Not sure how I will open this particular course but if it were on Latin America I would show "How Tasty Was My Frenchman" (on cannibals!) and read Silviano Santiago on "O entre-lugar do discurso latino-americano" http://books.google.com/books?id=l5An1cIR4D8C&pg=PA25&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

Anonymous said...

...and I am considering the psychoanalysis question. I do not know a lot about it. But I think Freud was being a philologist, basically, what keeps coming up and what is the cultural context? what is being suggested? Interpretation of Dreams is like reading Amado Alonso or someone like that.

I have the impression, though, that what psychoanalysis is about is not actually unconscious motivations but about being in relation to self and to other. What does it mean, how is it done?

Jonathan said...

It's kind of like Freud hadn't read Schleiermacher or Dilthey. As a philologist he read out of context (Oedipus, etc...) and didn't seem cognizant of the richness of even German philology. And, yes, I'm sure object-relations theory could be more interesting than classic Freudianism, but I know very little about it.

Anonymous said...

Nor I, but I am convinced it is more scientific, it seems more rigorous and to have less of a tendency to get you into some neverending interpretive loop.

The difficulty with Freudian concepts is that they enable you to say anything about anything. Everything is speculation and you twist it how you want it, with just enough of a concept and just enough evidence to finish some sentences.