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Thursday, January 10, 2013

All interpretations Are Contextual (More Notes Toward the Theory Class)

There is always a context for literary interpretation. It could be biographical, historical, literary-historical, ideological, or anything else.

(It would take more work to justify this point for readings that seem merely formalist or immanent to the text itself. But I could do it.)

So the choice is not between context and no-context, but in the choice of interpretative framework.

Wars between approaches are argument about what context is the most relevant one.

"Culture wars" between canonical Western culture and feminism, gay studies, race, etc... are battles over what the interpretative context should be.

Is the "Tempest" "about" colonialism? The historical context of Shakespeare's time? (Greenblatt).

Is it about Shakespeares's own artistry? A self-reflective metadrama in which Prospero is a stand-in for the author?

Is it about the author's unconscious mind? The metaphysics of presence? Girardian mimetic desire? It will be about any of those things if you want it to be. The horizon of interpretation most relevant to us now is the survival of the planet, so maybe an eco-critical reading of the Tempest should be the trump card?

Latin American romantic novels are "about" nation-building, right? That seems to be the dominant interpretation.


Professor Zero said...

Latin American romantic novels are "about" nation-building, right? That seems to be the dominant interpretation.

--Or has been since D.S.'s book made that big hit.

Before that they were attempts to imitate French novels, or something like that. They were considered aesthetically bad, poorly realized, and so on.

Then the nation building thesis allowed one to take focus off the aesthetic poverty and find redeeming interest in them.

But, what if they are not actually inferior? What would things look like then? What if people worldwide actually read Machado de Assis? What if the fact that Isaacs draws on Chateaubriand and Bernardin de St. Pierre is not interpreted to mean he is a leech?

...I do not know but this is a very interesting question, instructive.

Jonathan said...

Machado de Assis is really a great writer and he should be read all around the world. Don Casmurro blew me away.

The Doris Sommer interpretation seemed perfect. Not being in the field, I'm not questioning it, but it seemed a perfectly "convenient" way of bracketing aesthetic questions and hitching those novels to a trendy topic, nationalism itself. A former colleague of mine wrote her dissertation by taking that framework, and adding some more race and gender to it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I was utterly delighted when the articles that would be that book started coming out, because at last someone was saying something interesting, especially when there are all those incest plots and incest is mestizaje.

And yes, said book has enabled many dissertations and much else. So I am not complaining.

But. (And I have to work this out soon. I want to go to N.O. Sat., there is a parade I want to see, but only if I also ensconce myself at Tulane and think about this.)

But where the interpretation is off is that she is seeing the 19th century through a post-1930 haze and does not realize it. 1930 being the year of Freyre and all, everyone accepting mestizaje as the basis of the nation and deciding it is a happy medium which is NOT what it had been historically.

Where she sees conciliation and blending, I see violence and fractured subjectivity!!!