Friday, November 6, 2009

Eco and Culler on Interpretation

To the proliferation of interpretations (readings, hearings) in this blog:

Umberto Eco illustrates a point about the "difference between interpreting and using a text" by listing ways in which a poem by Wordsworth might be appropriated: "for parody, for showing how a text can be read in relation to different cultural frameworks, or for strictly personal ends (I can read a text to get inspiration for my own musing)," but Eco separates these uses from the special category of interpretation: "if I want to interpret Wordsworth's text I must respect his cultural and linguistic background" (1992, 68-69; his emphasis). Eco regards interpretation as a process of constructing or reconstructing the text at hand, but in a particular way: "The initiative of the reader basically consists in making a conjecture about the text's intention," or, to put it slightly differently, "a text is a device conceived in order to produce its model reader" (64).

Interpretation, then, is an active process of trying to find out what a text is about. "Use" is a default category that includes what is not interpretation, what is not – or what is more than – the reader's "conjecture about the text's intent": it leads out of the text rather than into it, as a thesis leads out of a text to the rhetoric of the interpreter/reader.

Eco's goal is to make a clear distinction between interpretation and overinterpretation, but for Jonathan Culler there is a direct parallel between originality in a text and overinterpretation in criticism: "Interpretation itself needs no defence; it is with us always, but like most intellectual activities, interpretation is interesting only when it is extreme. Moderate interpretation, which articulates a consensus, though it may have value in some circumstances, is of little interest" (1992, 110).

What Culler means by "extreme" is not merely associations that push well beyond the plausible, which he says are worth exploring even if most may be "judged unpersuasive or redundant or irrelevant or boring" (110): he especially extols an attitude that shows objective distance (the critic's analogue to defamiliarization in the artwork), that aims past the simple giving and receiving of information, that acknowledges that, for example, "it is useful from time to time to stand back and ask why someone said some perfectly straightforward thing such as, 'Lovely day, isn't it?'" (113). Culler concludes that "what Eco calls overinterpretation may in fact be a practice of asking precisely those questions which are not necessary for normal communication but which enable us to reflect on its functioning" (113-4; his emphasis); for the practice of interpretation of texts his point might be translated as "What questions does the text forget to ask?" (Culler's position is consistent with late post-structuralism; he was writing in the early 1990s.)

If Culler does highlight the fact that an unbridgeable gap between texts and their possible contexts enables the proliferation of interpretations (but also the weakness of its endlessness), he does not thereby succeed in undermining the strengths of certain priorities in interpretive practice as Eco describes them: focusing on textual intent rather than authorial intent, on economy in evidence for interpretation, on doublechecking interpretations against textual coherence, and on respect for "cultural and linguistic background."

In other words, each author wins a point or two here, but the tensions between text and context are not erased by merely asserting the priority of one or the other.

Eco, Umberto, ed. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Culler, Jonathan. "In Defence of Overinterpretation." In Eco 1992, 109-24.