Category: interpretation

il n’y a pas de hors-texte

In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Jacques Derrida comments on problem of interpretation. The epigram from Montaigne that introduces this essay is curious, a sort of anti-Thesis 11 (Marx):

We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.

We can stop our reading here and ask, why? Why not interpret things? Doesn’t study of human society involve the interpretation of things, the things of society?

Perhaps Derrida answers this question in Of Grammatology, where he discusses the relation of writing and reading:

…the writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer…” (p. 158)

Now Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature:

The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self. (Space, p. 16)

Back to Derrida: What, then, is the “task of reading”? Reading involves a doubling commentary, which is unavoidable but is never really a reading of a text; the reading of the text does not involve reaching beyond language to a referent external to the text:

To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language….Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guard rail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absense of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte]. (Of Grammatology, 158).

Back to the epigram, “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”: What does this mean for the human sciences? Don’t the human sciences attempt to reach through interpretation to the things themselves? Isn’t language really just a tool used to reach the things of reality? Or is Derrida correct to remind us that language, as a system of signs, has its own materiality, its own force and play, its own energia? Should we not see that the contradiction between our concepts and the reality out there (the dualism that haunts Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Gadamer, and numerous others) does not arise at the level of reality but rather at the level of language itself, in the space of textuality?

Or is Foucault’s criticism of Derrida correct:

Today Derrida is the most decisive representative of the [Classical] system in its final brilliance; the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of the events that are produced there in order to retain nothing but marks for a reading; the invention of voices behind the texts in order not to have to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourse; assigning the spoken and the unspoken in the text to an originary place in order not to have to reinstate the discursive practices in the field of transformations where they are effected. (Harari, p. 41, Histoire de la folie, p. 602).

I read Foucault to be saying the following: whereas Derrida thinks force resides in the text, I (Foucault) think force resides in the field of forces in which the text has its effectivity. If Foucault is correct that Derrida’s emphasis on the text and play within the sign or structure of language leaves behind the play of language in practice, is there a way to reinsert Derrida’s critique into this field of transformations? Or should we agree with Derrida, who might have argued that the field its only possible through language?

Perhaps Josué Harari  can provide some clarity: speaking of deconstruction he writes

Deconstruction implies an operation involving the dismantling of something into discrete component parts and suggests the ever-present possibility of putting the object back together in its original form. This is clearly not the case with, nor the aim of, Derridean deconstruction, which consists more of the tracing of a path among textual strata in order to stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning which have accumulated and settled into the text’s fabric. (‘A text always has several epochs and reading must resign itself to this fact’ [Of Grammatology, p. 42]) Thus, deconstruction is really more of a technique of de-sedimentation…a technique of de-sedimenting the text in order to allow what was always already inscribed in its texture to resurface (Harari, Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, p. 36-37)

This makes sense (I think) when speaking of written texts; what does it mean for the possible de-sedimentation of social action? If we treat social action as a text, as does Ricoeur, does deconstruction, de-sedimentation, makes more sense: social scientists would then “stir up and expose forgotten or dormant sediments of meaning”? Is this analogous to stirring up the forgotten – the repressed – social unconscious, that arises from action itself, action qua text?

All that, and we’ve only just finished with the epigram…

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences,” Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-293

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)



(image: Jill Krementz)

Apropos Susan Sontag (b. January 16, 1933), a few remarks on interpretation.

(1) One should be concerned with the implications of various points of entry into the interpretation of texts. This means that it is necessary to break down the terms and relations of text, interpretation – and text and interpretation – into their subatomic units to see what is involved when one says “I’m interpreting a text.” So the most basic questions are the most important questions: What is a text or what are texts? Is it a Constituted Text, defined by the relation of author to text; a Text in Context, viz., conditioned text, shaped by extra-textual, non-authorial forces? Is the text a matter of structure (Structure as Text), comprised of the latent and the manifest, of relations in a sign system? Or is the text itself a context (Text as Context), which constitutes itself as unstable, fragmented, and contradictory because the signs that produce it are not fixed?

(2) What is it about a text that interests us? What is interpretation? What are the conditions of interpretation when we define a text this way or that, or when we define such and such a phenomenon as a text? For philosophical hermeneutics, this epistemological foundation involves overcoming the limits of the epistemological relationship between the author and the text. For social scientific approaches, this foundation involves the relationship between the text and its social context. For psychoanalytic and structuralist approaches, this foundation involves the primacy of a hidden or latent text. Finally, for literary and poststructuralist approaches, this foundation involves a conceptualization of the text that constructs and deconstructs itself.

(3) And, finally, what kind of knowledge is gleaned by interpreting a text and how do we come to know whether this knowledge is true, correct, valid, or authoritative?


Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” (which might rather have been entitled “Against Content”) traces the problems of interpretation to the mimetic theory of art and its emphasis on the figurative dimension.

… All Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such — above and beyond given works of art — becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (p. 4)

Sontag argues that “the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” (p. 5) Such philistinism, the piling up of interpretations of content, the thicket weaving around works by the date of the original publication of the essay (1964) that largely owed to the academic hegemony of the New Critics, distracts from the works themselves. Along the way, the form, style, and enjoyment of the work were rendered secondary at best and irrelevant at worst. (See W. K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry [1954], pp. 21-39)

The opposition between the philistine and the aesthete is longstanding, although Sontag does not primarily work with it. What she detects in philistine interpretation is reaction. “Interpretation,” she argues,

must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. Today is such a time, when the interpretation is reactionary, stifling. . . . Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret the world is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (p. 7)

In addition to impoverishing the world (of its art), the philistine’s interpretive contributions undermine the agonistic experience of art.

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistines refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable. (p. 8)

Sontag points out that such interpretation “runs rampant” in America in relation to “those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde” (i.e., fiction and drama) and conspicuously neglects what she calls “programmatic avant-gardism,” those paintings, poetry, and music which are “experiments with form at the expense of content” (pp. 10, 11). In place of interpretive criticism which fixates on content, Sontag proposes that a more adequate interpretive practice should focus on form.

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today?. . .  What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. (p.12)

This emphasis on form would, in my view, restore to the work of art what makes it a work of art and not merely a substitute version of a reality existing outside the work: imagination, creativity, play, madness, joy, hubris, nonsense, pleasure.


The essay is a constrained form. Fiction is freedom. Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143

It can be argued, as Theodor Adorno does, that the essay form “evokes intellectual freedom.” In his view,

The essay, however, does not let its domain be prescribed for it. Instead of accomplishing something scientifically or creating something artistically, its efforts reflect the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him. The essay reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creation ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic. Luck and play are essential to it. It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in the context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say. (T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes on Literature, v. 1 [1991], p. 4)

Nonetheless, one can agree with Sontag regarding freedom. Fiction is the freedom to tell stories, not because of the content of the stories, but because of the form which communicates the stories. The form is the real artifice, the real art in fiction, which involves the same luck and play Adorno attributes to the essay form. Yet, as Adorno would no doubt acknowledge, it is a serious form of play, not the equivalent of infantile finger painting.



Sontag’s call for an erotics of art is not an anti-intellectual move, although it may be anti-academic; rather it brings back a Kantian sensibility for the sublime and the beautiful, while not dismissing the more visceral element of feeling-interpretation that Kant downgraded to the level of the gustable. The problem of interpretation, on Sontag’s account, is that it “takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there.” Hence, the “aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” (p. 14).

What may have been the main problem of academic interpretation in the early 1960s has become, in recent decades, a problem of the overly abrupt political readings of works, which focus on content in a different way. Now interpretations build up around a thicket of categories of identity, which are either judged to be erased, elided, rendered non-legible and invisible, no longer distorted by bourgeois ideology but rather by the identity of the author and her characters. This new version of the will to knowledge/truth extends to works of art at the expense of any recognition of the fact that works are not totalitarian with respect to form.


What is the historical state of interpretation today? Naive realism appears to rule popular criticism. Works are judged deficient to the extent that they stray from a mimetic theory of art derived, ironically, from Greek antiquity. In more contemporary philosophical terms, such realist interpretive practices comport well with the correspondence theory of truth. This tendency is especially noticeable in popular film criticism. Here, Susan Sontag’s insistence on the significance of form for the interpretation of works of art remains permanently timely.

Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1990 [1966]), 3-14

Right as the rain

Naive realism is a negative wish-fulfillment.


The latest episode of “The Newsroom” has come under criticism. In the main, the critics reflect (and their criticism exhibits) the assumption that the fictional program is a direct expression of Aaron Sorkin’s opinion on whatever topic/issue is addressed in the narrative. To those critics, I would ask:

When characters express opposed opinions in scenes, how do you know which one is Mr Sorkin’s? If they are all Mr Sorkin’s, then he would rightly be diagnosed with DID (as would all writers).

From a literary-critical perspective, this variety of cultural criticism — the predominant form that popular cultural criticism takes today — is intellectually deficient. It is wrongheaded to reduce the “narrative” to the “author’s opinion.” This typically occurs when the “narrator” is assumed to be the author’s voice or when all stories are assumed to be autobiographical. However, the insistence on this lazy reduction does serve journalistic purposes (as clickbait) and political purposes (as a shaming device).

Wonder and doubt


Q: “How do people approach life? With a sense of wonder or with doubt? Aristotle said many years ago that philosophy begins in wonder. Kierkegaard later observed and lamented in the 19th century, that there’s been a shift; that philosophy begins with doubt. Is that still the case today?”

Near the beginning of Negative Dialectics, Adorno claims that philosophy had been surpassed (because its moment of realization was missed). Yet, I witnessed a packed auditorium at 9am on a Saturday morning held in rapt attention by Habermas’s lecture “From Kant to Hegel and Back Again: The Move toward Detranscendentalization” (subsequently published in Truth and Justification). There’s no schande in the fact that there is professional philosophy (and the claim against academic philosophy that it is academic doesn’t constitute a non-trivial finding) and that philosophy exists outside the academy. I’m amused by the apparent war between analytic and continental philosophy (which echoes the apparent war between quantitative and qualitative methods in the social sciences). Professional philosophy is an embattled field, at once the most exulted of the cultural sciences and, often, the smallest department within the humanities. The social sciences have encroached, in their clumsy way, on the philosophical field, appropriating, borrowing, and stealing, frequently without understanding.


Socrates: “I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (wonder).” Plato, Theaetetus (Penguin Books: p. 25).

Hegel: “Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” The Philosophy of Right (Preface).

Wittgenstein: “In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.” Remarks on Colour (University of California Press: 1-15, 4e).


Wonder and doubt should not be placed in opposition. Here I would say that “wonder” stands in a polemical relation to the view of philosophy articulated by Hegel in the Preface to The Philosophy of Right; the notion that philosophy comes on the scene only after events are cut and dried (which allows an identity between the real and ideal, the real and the rational) and the List der Vernunft (in The Philosophy of History) leave no room for contingency, of anything of which one might be “in wonder.” There are no historical surprises for Hegel, no possibility that things could be otherwise; they simply are.

And yet, Wittgenstein signals: uncertainty — a form of doubt — also opens a way to wonder (the preparation, or capacity, to learn something new or unexpected); or perhaps we can understand wonder and doubt as different orientations that bring about openness towards what exists, what is thought to exist, and categories of knowledge.


Whether doubt and wonder should be considered oppositional ways of knowing (of philosophy) or as complementary orientations, one can also acknowledge that a hierarchical relationship exists between wonder and doubt. A homology exists in the relationship between the following terms, with primacy accruing to the first term in the paired sets:

Doubt and wonder
Science and art

The hierarchical relations of doubt/wonder, science/art have other associations (or relations) of superior and inferior mapped on to them:



We can also consider the question raised by Kierkegaard in another way, with another provisional “opposition” between two orientations: knowing and being. Ricoeur’s summary of the trend in philosophical hermeneutics (represented by Heidegger and Gadamer) is helpful: “I see the recent history of hermeneutics as dominated by two preoccupations. The first tends progressively to enlarge the aim of hermeneutics, in such a way that all regional hermeneutics [NB. here he means hermeneutics developed for the purpose of the study of the bible and ancient texts (philology)] are incorporated into one general hermeneutics. But this movement of deregionalization cannot be pressed to the end unless at the same time the properly epistemological concerns of hermeneutics – its efforts to achieve a scientific status – are subordinated to ontological preoccupations, whereby understanding ceases to appear as a simple mode of knowing in order to become a way of being and a way of relating to beings and to being” (“The task of hermeneutics” (p. 54) in From Text To Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II). The opposition of epistemology (which is associated with doubt, science, and method in Gadamer’s Truth and Method) to ontology (with the shift in favor of the latter) has this implication for philosophy in the work of Gadamer. According to Gadamer, we must first ask what types of beings we are; answer: we are historical beings. Second, he argues that interpretation/hermeneutics involves us in acquiring the historical tradition which always already shapes our way of being; prejudices, the bête noire of Enlightenment thought (and the philosophy of doubt running from Descartes to Durkheim), are not to be rejected, but rather are the starting point for an interpretive process in which a fusion of horizons (our own with those of the past) takes place.

Hence, we wind up (following Heidegger and Gadamer) with a rejection of skepticism, epistemology, and, most significantly, explanation, and an exclusive embrace of interpretation and understanding. Ricoeur attempted to overcome this opposition by turning to linguistics as a “scientific method” that is appropriate to language and our being in language — as per Heidegger’s claim that language is “the house of Being.” (Martin Heidegger, “The way to language” (p 135) in On the Way to Language).

“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes” (Ricoeur, “What is a text? explanation and understanding” (p 113) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

I reference Ricoeur for the purpose of showing an effort to work through apparent oppositions that pertain to defining what “philosophy” is (as they are raised in Heidegger and, perhaps in Kierkegaard). It is possible to both raise epistemological questions (in this case, the conditions of meaningfulness) and ontological questions (the meaning of a text in relation to the world of texts and to ourselves) within philosophical hermeneutics. Ricoeur explains this as follows, with the notion of a “hermeneutical arc.”

“I shall therefore say: to explain is to being out the structure, that is, the internal relations of dependence that constitute the statics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself en route toward the orient of the text. We are invited by this remark to correct our initial concept of interpretation and to search – beyond a subjective process of interpretation as an act on the text – for an objective process of interpretation that would be the act of the text.”

“The idea of interpretation as appropriation is not, for all that eliminated; it is simply postponed until the termination of the process. It lies at the extremity of what we called about the hermeneutical arc: it is the final brace of the bridge, the anchorage of the arch in the ground of lived experience. but the entire theory of hermeneutics consists in mediating this interpretation-appropriation by the series of interpretants that belong to the work of the text upon itself. Appropriation loses its arbitrariness insofar as it is the recovery of that which is at work, in labor, within the text. What the interpreter says is a resaying that reactivates what is said in the text” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding” (pp 121-122, 124) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

In this case, an openness to the text (towards discovery and appropriation of its meaning) is compatible with the philosophical tradition of doubt (epistemology), which raises questions of the conditions for knowing a text (its internal conditions of meaningfulness). The tradition of doubt does not have to be excised; and the “pathos of astonishment” need not be dispelled (pace Heidegger).


Narrative and legal validity

What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story?

Hayden White, “Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 2.


In the early time, long ago, an Indian maiden was taken into the sky. When she came back to the land, the man who took her turned into a grizzly bear. Her three brothers searched for her but found the bear first and killed it without realizing that it was their sister’s husband. They brought the skin to where the river calls back the salmon every year. The Gitksan peoples have been in Kispiox ever since.

“Canadian Indians Celebrate Vindication of their History,” Anthony DePalma, New York Times, Feb. 9, 1998, A8.


Angelia Means’ essay “Narrative Argumentation: Arguing with Natives” (2002) grapples with the question of how the proceduralist methodology employed in democratic constitutional interpretation might hermeneutically place putative forms of “cultural difference” in the “best possible light.” One of the strengths of this essay is the way Means spells out conditions in which groups with manifestly incommensurable worldviews might achieve some degree of mutual recognition—in this case, the translation of the meaning of property rights. However, I want to raise critical questions about the specific proposals offered in this essay for understanding how the admission of the narratives of the “non-Western, colonized Other” might contribute to intercultural democracy. I am presumably in full agreement with Means on the question of whether indigenous populations in the Americas should receive equitable and just legal treatment: they should. However, my disagreement concerns the analytical and normative arguments she makes on the basis of Delgamuukw v. the Crown, a case which she defines as a “disagreement over the interpretation of rights that reaches into modes of argumentation and evidence adduced to prove rights” (Means 2002: 223). The issues I want to address are whether sacred narratives – infused with ethical meaning – should “count” as evidence of property rights (prior possession) in a legal proceeding and whether the admission of these texts by the Canadian Supreme Court provides an appropriate model for processes of democratic cultural recognition. In short, I’m not persuaded by Means’ assertion that

In a democracy, we cannot legitimately discount the argumentative authority of those who make arguments that cannot possibly be persuasive absent our willingness to revise what we find persuasive… (Means 2002: 237-238).

Two points covered below:

1. Unavoidable problems of validity arise from truth claims made on the basis of narratives that mix reality and imagination in narrativized form.

2. I’ll briefly defend the hermeneutics of suspicion.


1. On the Narrative as Argumentation

On the surface, I find the arguments for the inclusion of narratives in legal proceedings to be uncontroversial. Before the law, prosecutors, defense attorneys, plaintiffs, and defendants tell stories. What matters in a legal process, of course, is whether the evidentiary basis of these stories can withstand the test of cross examination: in other words, evidence must be viewed by a jury or panel of judges as valid (unbiased and not artifactual); witnesses, who corroborate or refute opposed narrations of the same objective event, must be viewed as credible. The strong claim in Means’ essay is that the narratives of the Other, who is alleged to interpret differently, must count as persuasive evidence if ethnocentrism is to be avoided.

…we can and must learn to comprehend cultural narratives which appear to be untranslatable from the perspective of modern law. From the vantage point of democratic legitimacy, we must provide intercultural support for democratic norms for two reasons: 1) to ensure equal rights for “all,” including the “cultural stranger” and 2) to persuade the “cultural stranger” that argumentative practices of rights justification are not ethnocentric. (Means 2002: 221)

In the absence of cultural recognition as an element of constitutional interpretation, it would be impossible to give meaning to a concept of property rights that was not ethnocentric, and the effect would be to once again dispossess Native persons of rights, only this time they would be dispossessed of constitutional rights. (Means 2002: 224)

However, I am not sure that the authority and validity of the narrative form itself can be taken as self-evident. A few definitional questions are worth asking: what is narrative? What does interpretation involve? And, what model of intercultural democracy best fits cultural difference so construed?

Following Hayden White (1987: 2), we can distinguish between “a historical discourse that narrates and a discourse that narrativizes, between a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it and a [narrative] discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story.” In historical discourse, ‘subjectivity’ “is given by the presence, explicit or implicit, of an ‘ego’ who can be defined ‘only as the person who maintains the discourse.’ By contrast, the ‘objectivity’ of narrative is defined by the absence of all reference to the narrator’ . […] The events are chronologically recorded as they appear on the horizon of the story. No one speaks. The events seem to tell themselves” (1987: 3). What White describes as narrative seems to fit the “Aboriginal” stories entered as a factual (i.e., real) basis for property rights claims (for “Aboriginal Title”).

White poses a series of critical remarks that I think are appropriate for judging these expressive narratives. He asks

What is involved in the production of a discourse in which ‘events seem to tell themselves,’ especially when it is a matter of events that are explicitly identified as real rather than imaginary, as in the case of historical representations? In a discourse having to do with manifestly imaginary events, which are the ‘contents’ of fictional discourses, the question poses few problems. For why should not imaginary events be represented as ‘speaking themselves’. […] But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be; they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose as the subjects of a narrative.” (White 1982: 3)

Can a narrative in which imaginary events “speak themselves” as real events count as a persuasive argument? Here, Habermas’s theory of communicative action offers insight : “I call interactions communicative when the participants coordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of intersubjective recognition of validity claims. […] Those claims are claims to truth, claims to rightness, and claims to truthfulness, according to whether the speaker refers to something in the objective world (as the totality of existing states of affairs), to something in the shared social world (as the totality of the legitimately regulated interpersonal relationships of a social group), or to something in his own subjective world (as the totality of experiences to which one has privileged access)” (Habermas 1990: 58). In the case of Aboriginal narratives, it would seem that typical methods of persuasion, involving assessments of truth, rightness, or sincerity, do not arise (1) because neither an objective world nor a shared social world is a referent and (2) because the authorial role is effaced.

What might this mean for interpretive practice? According to Paul Ricoeur, when an interpretive situation does not allow for a dialogue between the author of a text and a reader, the “text” ceases to have a referent and it replaces speech. In this “space of literature,” texts relate to other texts (and the interpretations of texts) and nothing else (neither to the author nor to the world of the author). “This relation of text to text, within the effacement of the world about which we speak, engenders the quasi world of texts or literature. . . . Words cease to efface themselves in front of things; written words become words for themselves” (Ricoeur 1991: 109). For Ricoeur, interpretation of this imaginary world of the text moves in two directions. As readers we can explain the “internal relations” of the text by situating ourselves in the “closure” of the text, which “has no outside but only an inside;…has no transcendent aim, unlike a speech that is addressed to someone about something” (Ricoeur 1991: 113). Or we can seek to understand the text through an act of appropriation, which Ricoeur defines as “the interpretation of a text [that] culminates in the self-interpretation of the subject who thenceforth understands h[er]self better, understands h[er]self differently, or simply begins to understand h[er]self” (Ricoeur 1991: 118).

What might this approach to narrative texts and interpretation imply for the possibility of the intercultural reinterpretation of rights? Creation stories might “disclose” to non-Aboriginals a different way of relating to and experiencing their relationship to the natural environment; it might move non-Aboriginals to take up a re-enchanted relation to the objective world as a matter of lifestyle; these stories might move non-Aboriginals to adopt or imitate what they take to be Aboriginal folkways (as an act of love or theft or both). Or, more generally, the aestheticization of life portended by such stories might find an analogous critical example in the Dadaist and Surrealist intention to bring art out of the museum and back into life. But such stories would seem to have little to offer with regard to disclosing empirical truth about the objective world of property relations. If the distinction between historical discourse (that has an empirical referent) and narrative discourse (that has an imaginary referent) is not made, then there would be no way to distinguish, for instance, between Thomas Dixon’s novel The Klansman and W. E. B. DuBois’ historical account of Black Reconstruction in America as factual evidence about post-civil war life in the American South.

In other words, narratives (stories) might offer a form of persuasion regarding imaginary worlds, which might be evaluated according to culturally diverse aesthetic standards for world disclosure, but they would seem to lack persuasiveness regarding either the objective world or the shared social world. At least it would appear questionable whether they could withstand critical scrutiny. In the case of Delgamuukw, this would make the inclusion of such stories a procedural concession that does not guarantee a favorable outcome; and it is worth noting that the Canadian Supreme Court did not decide whether the Aboriginal stories were in fact a persuasive legal argument; it only ruled that such stories could not be excluded as forms of evidence. Therefore, it might be premature to describe this ruling as a model of intercultural democracy. However, given the account of narratives and interpretation by White and Ricoeur, intercultural democracy might better be construed as entailing the mutual appropriation of cultural practices among Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, and the recognition of such appropriations as transformative for the self-understanding (or identity) of both the participants and their cultures. Intercultural democracy would then entail facilitating choice among cultural identities, the creation of new identities, and the equitable distribution of symbolic and material resources that facilitate practical recognition: that is, the institutionalization of identities in the public sphere.


2. The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Having defined intercultural recognition in this way, as an instance of symbolic democracy, I want to briefly consider the broader implications of the relationship between cultural recognition and methods of critical reasoning by defending the relevance of a hermeneutics of suspicion for any critical theory of cultural recognition.

Two points:

First, the institutional domains of the public sphere and the law are not identical; the difference between the two has implications for the politics of recognition. One of the strengths of existing liberal democracy as an ethic project is its cultivation of a finely tuned awareness that public policies enable some actions and constrain others; and that the unintended side effects of normatively worthy projects and policies should be assessed in order for some level of democratic responsibility and accountability to be present. Standards for adjudicating rights claims in the legal domain are and should be higher than standards for coming to consensual agreement in the diffuse settings of the public sphere because the outcomes of legal decisions affect third parties that are not part of specific cases. In other words, the domain of law, as a socially differentiated institution, should not be assimilate into the public sphere or the lifeworld. (Conversely, Habermas [1996: 301-302] has argued against the application of deliberative democratic procedures to the whole of society: “The normative self-understanding of deliberative politics certainly requires a discursive mode of sociation for the legal community, but this mode does not extend to the whole of society in which the constitutionally organized political system is embedded. Even on its own self-understanding, deliberative politics remains part of a complex society, which, as a whole, resists the normative approach practiced in legal theory. […] In this regard, the discourse-theoretic reading of democracy has a point of contact with a detached social-scientific approach that considers the political system neither the apex nor center nor even the structural core of society, but just one action system among others. […] What is more, deliberative politics is internally connected with contexts of a rationalized lifeworld that meets it halfway.”).

Second, the politics of recognition is compatible with the hermeneutics of suspicion employed by critical theories (whether deconstructive, psychoanalytic, or social democratic). Interpretive vigilance with respect to unintentional forms of bad faith – like unrecognized forms of power embedded within otherwise good intentions – remains a important task of critical thinking. On this account, Habermas’s deliberative political theory remains a critical theory since, in his model of discourse ethics, validity claims that are grounded on the economic or cultural authority of the speaker, or the assertion of a privileged access to the truth on the basis of such authority, would be open to discursive challenges. Even when cultural recognition is at stake, I would argue that reason does not demand that a democratically constituted citizenry must accept the identity claims, claims of cultural authenticity, or assertions of privileged access and means to historical truth of any individual or group at face value.


Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996)

Jürgen Habermas, “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification,” Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).

Angelia K. Means, “Narrative Argumentation: Arguing with Natives,” Constellations 9, 2 (2002): 221-245.

Paul Ricoeur, “What is a Text?” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991).

Hayden White, “Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

Interpret this

A fresh controversy has apparently broken out about the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. As reported by the New York Times:

On the wall is a 60-foot-long inscription, in 15-inch letters made from the steel of the twin towers: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time. Virgil.”

This line is drawn from The Aeneid. A classics professor issued the following objection.

“If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than to those honored by the memorial,” said Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “So my first reaction is that the quotation is shockingly inappropriate for the U.S. victims of the 9/11 attack.”

But why should the original context have any bearing on its contemporary meaning vis-a-vis 9/11? In my view, the inscription is apt for the victims of the 9/11 attack.

For hermeneutic justification of this position, consider Paul Ricœur. Because the author (Virgil) is absent in the act of reading the text (of The Aeneid or the inscription on the wall of the Memorial), the reader faces the meaning of the text alone.

“As we shall see, the text is not without reference; the task of reading, qua interpretation, will be precisely to fulfill the reference. The suspense that defers the reference merely leaves the text, as it were, ‘in the air,’ outside or without a world. In virtue of this obliteration of the relation to the world, each text is free to enter into relation with all the other texts that come to take the place of the circumstantial reality referred to by living speech. This relation of text to text, within the effacement of the world about which we speak, engenders the quasi world of texts or literature.

Such is the upheaval that affects discourse itself, when the movement of reference toward the act of showing is intercepted by the text. Words cease to efface themselves in front of things; written words become words for themselves.” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding,” From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, 109)


“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes.” (113)

What does this mean for the appropriation of an ancient text by contemporary readers? “In short, in hermeneutic reflection – or in reflective hermeneutics – the constitution of the self is contemporaneous with the constitution of meaning” (119). This is what it means to “(make) one’s own what was initially alien” (119). This is also what it means to return the worldless text of structural analysis to the world of speech, the world of the present. “This world is that of the reader, this subject is the reader himself” (119).

What is worth exploring about this choice of inscription, however, is why we moderns seek to bind ourselves to the perceived greatness (i.e., the superiority and authority) of antiquity. Virgil is a popular choice: “Annuit cœptis” (also from The Aeneid) is imprinted on the US one dollar bill, incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States.



Of interpretation

The act of interpretation is an act of conjuring; an interpreter conjures the truth from stones. As a conjurer, the interpreter should endeavor to know of what substance the stones are made, how they have been formed, and how they arrived in their locations. Likewise, the conjuring interpreter should know something of the art and science of conjuring. She should know what she is on about. Interpretation is a science — an object of objective contemplation, it has rules, guidelines, and recipes. It is an art — not every interpreter is equally skilled at the science of interpretation; not every interpreter is capable of finding gold in the muddy, brown silt of incessant observations, of seeing white in the night in which all cows are grey. This art also requires, beyond vision, an ear for the sound of things, an aural tactility, the ability to perceive the shimmering colours between the dominant tones.