Thursday, October 12, 2006

On "misinterpretation"

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.

5 comments:

Texter said...

As I understand your post, the speaker today claimed someone "misinterpreted" the OOBB when in fact, they may just have differing interpretations. I agree with you that the speaker had the responsibility to explain the reasoning behind the claim of "misinterpretation" however, as presentations are so short, and as it may have only tangentially relatd to her presentation, maybe she didn't have time? BUT, that doesn't preclude someone in the audience asking a question and following up? Did anyone?
As for your progressive Christian friend - while I absolutely agree that texts are dynamic and interpretations change, my understanding of many critiques of fundamentalist interpretations lies in exactly their denial of dynamism and historicism in a text. I would agree that to say they are "misinterpreting" is inaccurate - they're offering an interpretation based on their understanding of the content and function of a text in their community. It may be an "accurate" interpretation for their needs and ideology, just as a secularist's interpretation of a sacred text may be "accurate" in terms of their needs. My head is hurting now.

Hilaire said...

You're right, Texter, that someone could have addressed this in the discussion. I was considering it, but the session ran way overlong and there was about 5 minutes for questions, and so I didn't have a chance.

You know, it's not even that I think there are *necessarily* multiple interepretations...perhaps it's quite right that SMB misinterpreted OOBB. But I guess I just think that *even* in the context of a presentation, where we're so pressed for time, those kinds of claims deserve elaboration...that that's a basic requirement of scholarly good citizenship or something.

And yeah, thanks for clarifying the implications of the stuff around religious texts...you did a much better job of explicating the issues.

medieval woman said...

My brain is fried after a long weekend with my dad so I can't comment properly, but I just wanted to say that I liked your observations in this post very much - I also hope that your paper went well on Friday!?!

Hilaire said...

Thanks MW...that's nice to hear, since I don't really think I have clarified my own thoughts on WHY this bothers me...

My paper was okay...I got unexpectedly nervous when I gave it. And I saw that there are problems at the level of structure. Overall, it was...meh...as they say. But it's going to be published since the panel Chair is going to be putting a book together and wants to include it (once I fix the structure, say I, and expand it). So that's good. Anyway, I may blog it in the context of a longer post about the way the conference ended for me...Stay tuned!

medieval woman said...

Oh - you are totally the shite! (In a good way) - that's great!! Uno mas publication por favor...