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  • Theocratism: The Religious Rhetoric of Academic Interpretation
  • Roger Seamon

Academic interpreters usually define themselves through opposition, and the contemporary movement which is commonly called cultural criticism defines itself in relation to formalism and its most prominent expression, New Criticism. Thus, in the introduction to a collection of essays entitled The New Historicism, H. Aram Veeser says, “The New Historicists combat empty formalism by pulling historical considerations to the center stage of literary analysis.” 1 The nutshell slogan for the change is text vs. context. The break with New Criticism is usually attributed to the advent of “theory,” which is here understood as an effort to move literary studies past the uncomfortably proliferating and increasingly problematic accumulation of interpretations generated by the New Critical model. In The Pursuit of Signs, a work which was instrumental in this process, Jonathan Culler wrote: “the most important and insidious legacy of the new criticism is the widespread and unquestioning acceptance of the notion that the critic’s job is to interpret literary works.” 2 As I have shown in an earlier essay, 3 the rejection of interpretation in favor of theory failed, and although the term “theory” has, confusingly, remained as a label, cultural critics are as furiously interpretive as their repudiated New Critical ancestors. What is referred to today as theory consists primarily of various interpretive schemas or methods (Lacanianism, deconstruction, New Historicism) that define themselves as socially oppositional. Susan Handelman’s title, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, is a good example of this usage. The persistence of interpretation as the dominant academic discourse suggests that, despite an altered attitude to art and certain aspects of [End Page 319] culture, there are significant continuities between New and cultural criticism, and the nature of these continuities sheds light on the relationship of literary studies to the related concepts of beauty, pleasure, and the aesthetic.

By interpretation I do not mean the unself-conscious grasp we have of meanings as we read a novel or a poem. As Susan Sontag said in her well-known essay, “Against Interpretation,” “Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ By interpretation, I mean a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of interpretation.” 4 Nor do I mean the effort to recover meanings when time has removed the context that was the condition of understanding. By interpretation I, like most academics, refer to the “discovery” of meanings beneath an already intelligible surface, a process whose logic is nicely analyzed by Arthur Danto in an essay entitled, “Deep Interpretation.” I quote the final sentence: “This is to treat works of art as Leonardo treated his spotted wall, as an occasion for critical invention which knows no limit, the deep play of departments of literature and hermeneutics.” 5 That is my theme.

Here is how Norman Holland, one of the most formidable second-generation New Critics, describes the process:

I and, I am sure, many of my contemporaries felt we were seeing literature in ways that had never been possible before. We were less concerned with the terminological furors that engaged the first New Critics than with the close examination of particular texts for plot parallels, repeated images, figures of speech, structure, myths, points of view, and so on. We sought them out with enthusiasm and diligence and something of the excitement that the generation of biologists must have felt who were first able to use the microscope. 6

Holland’s belief that he was discovering new meanings is shared by contemporary critics who find hidden relations of power in the cultural “field,” but what they, like Holland, think they discover, I claim they invent. For example, instead of finding multiple plot (and other) parallels within literary works, and thus showing the underlying structure of the text (and it is New Criticism that turned works into texts), Stephen Greenblatt, the dean of New Historicists, looks for parallels between literary and cultural themes. Thus, he begins by analyzing a narrative about the Spanish enslaving natives of the Bahamas by telling [End Page 320] them...

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