Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Interpretation

Perhaps the most important aspect to the study of the humanities is how it teaches about reading. Not “how to read”—although literacy is essential to the humanities—but about the nature of reading.

There is a peculiar tendency in American culture to believe in literal interpretations. From churches to legal scholars, there are populations who promote themselves as literalists. Other people “interpret,” while they simply go by “what the text says.” The problem is that literal interpretations are virtually impossible. Here’s an example:

On April 20, 2010 the US Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited the sale of films of animal cruelty
. The 8-1 decision reaffirmed the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. Several Justices, most notably Antonin Scalia, are literalists; they parse the meaning of the Constitution to understand what it meant when its authors wrote it.

So let’s look at the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” We normally read it to mean the freedom of expression; but that’s not what it says. The two main forms of mass communication in the eighteenth century were verbal (“speech”) or the printed word (“the press”). No other technologies existed at the time.

Film, in other words, is not literally covered by the First Amendment, only oral and written language. Yet the literalists on the court interpreted the First Amendment as covering film. So am I suggesting the US Congress apply bans to all other forms of communication? Not at all. I’m suggesting we challenge the fiction that anyone can read texts literally.

Meaning is not inherent to texts. It takes a human mind to derive meaning from scratch-marks on a page. But that human mind does not exist in a vacuum. It has its own history, including personal and social experiences, other works it has read, and idiosyncratic forms of reasoning; and it brings all these to bear when approaching a text. Interpretation is central to the humanities. The power of the humanities is understanding the nature of interpretation. The beauty of the humanities is seeing the range of reasonable interpretations of the same text.