I went to a couple of linked conference sessions today that relate to my work in fairly general terms. At one of them, there was a paper whose ideological foundation I disagreed with fairly profoundly, though I listened with some interest. But I do acknowledge that perhaps the fact of my disagreement with the author is the cause of my irritation at the way she used the term “misinterpretation”, which I’d like to talk about here.
This paper was about a particular thinker (Often Overlooked but Brilliant – OOBB). The author said, in passing, that another theorist (Seriously Major Bigwig – SMB) has misinterpreted OOBB. And, what’s more, SMB’s stature and influence have resulted in an entire generation of new theorists carrying on that misinterpretation. The scandal!
I was bugged, and it has stuck with me. The reason this bothered me so much was the very passing, off-the-cuff nature of the author’s claim that SMB had misinterpreted OOBB. I don’t think it’s fair – or very good scholarship – to simply assert that a scholar has misinterpreted another’s work without explaining in some detail why one is making such a claim. And perhaps it is misguided or snotty of me to say so, but I also think that when the scholar to whom one is attributing misinterpretation is such a Seriously Major Bigwig, the impetus to explain one’s reasoning becomes that much more important. If only to avoid making one look like an ass. Obviously, claiming misinterpretation is fine – more than fine, it’s a big part of what we do as academics – but not to give teeth to that claim seems to me to be bad form on so many levels.
A progressive Christian friend of mine, who works on the history of religion, has mentioned several times that it bothers her when religious progressives battling religious conservatism say “oh, those fundamentalists – they’re just misinterpreting the Bible/Koran/etc.” Her beef is that interpretation of these texts is not fixed. With faith, she has said to me, we’re not dealing with the kinds of rights and wrongs that such a claim implies; the claims entirely miss the point. They also elide the life of the sacred texts in history - their changing contexts.
I have been thinking of that refrain of hers in relation to today’s claim of SMB as a foul misinterpreter. When we do theory, we are negotiating a multiplicity of possible, contextual interpretations (which doesn't, at least to me, negate the possibility of more correct ones). If we make such accusations as lightly as was done today, I think we impoverish the project of theory-making (which today’s author was trying to venerate in its OOBB form). And that means theoretical monoculture. And that’s no fun, and can do nothing for us.