Friday, July 29, 2011

(Post-)Modernist Hermeneutics as a Petihta? Or Sort of...

A Petihta is a particular form of an ancient Jewish homily. It consists of a launching verse, usually from the Prophets or Writings, and a target verse from the Torah. According to many commentators, the more distinct and apparently unrelated the two verses are the better. Already knowing the end of the homily (the target verse), the pleasure for the audience/reader is to see how the interpreter, through exegetical virtuosity, will get from one to the other--the more disparate the verses then demonstrates a much higher level of interpretive ability and may make a further point: all scripture contains an underlying unity. Consider then this description of modern practices of interpretation:

What are commonly seen as "schools" of literary criticism or theoretical "approaches" to literature are, from the point of view of hermeneutics, dispositions to give particular kinds of answers to the question of what a work is ultimately "about": "the class struggle" (Marxism), "the possibility of unifying experience" (New Criticism), "Oedipal conflict" (psychoanalysis), "the containments of subversive energies" (new historicism), "the asymmetry of gender relations" (feminism), "the deconstructive nature of the text" (deconstruction), "the occlusion of imperialism" (post-colonial theory), "the heterosexual matrix" (gay and lesbian studies).

The theoretical discourses named in parentheses are not primarily modes of interpretation: they are accounts of what they take to be particularly important to culture and society. Many of these theories include accounts of the functioning of literature or discourse more generally, and so partake of the project of poetics; but as versions of hermeneutics they give rise to particular types of interpretation in which texts are mapped into a target language. What is important in the game of interpretation is not the answer you come up with--as my parodies show, some versions of the answer become, by definition, predictable. What's important is how you get there, what you do with the details of the text in relating them to your answer. (Culler, Literary Theory, 88-89)

Just exchange text/literature for launching verse and exchange "target language"/theoretical discourse for target verse; in both it is how you get there, but the end is known or "predictable." Even for those who do not ascribe to a particular theoretical discourse, if you read some of their work their conclusions become similarly predictable.

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