Interpretation is an ancient and venerable subject—as well as a word that garnishes the masthead of New Literary History, “A Journal of Theory and Interpretation.” But why interpretation right now? And who, or what, are its rivals?
The rationale for this issue is twofold. First, the dramatic surge of interest in methodology over the last few years. If the era of high theory was followed by an entrenchment of historicism, we are now in the midst of the method wars (the martial metaphor seems appropriate, given that tempers can run surprisingly high). What does it mean to read a text, scholars are asking, and are there other things we can do with texts besides interpreting them? Critics are debating the merits of close reading versus distant reading, surface reading versus deep reading, and reading suspiciously versus reading from a more receptive, generous, or postcritical standpoint. The focus has shifted from theoretical claims or empirical arguments to matters of method and mood, style and sensibility—in short, the various procedures and practices that inform our encounter with a text.
How, in this context, should we conceive of interpretation? Is it indispensable or disposable? An essential precondition of our being in the world or a specific and limited practice that is now in decline? Within the tradition of hermeneutics, to be sure, the need for interpretation is foundational and thus self-evident. Its purview, moreover, stretches beyond the deciphering of sacred or secular texts to encompass the fundaments of human existence. As symbol-creating and symbol-receiving animals, we are destined to interpret, caught fast in what Charles Taylor calls webs of interlocution. The linguistic turn in the humanities intensified this view of the inescapable nature of interpretation, as being the only game in town (Stanley Fish), and as going all the way down (Richard Rorty). If we are born into language, formed through language, bound to the world via language, interpretation is not optional.
Conversely, the linguistic turn also triggered a countermove: a skeptical questioning or relativizing of interpretation. Within certain strands of French thought, hermeneutics was associated with a discredited form of deep reading—the dogged pursuit of an ultimate, hidden, all-determining [End Page v] truth. Interpretation fell into disrepute—not because it testified to an inability to escape the meshes of language, but because of a desire to close down semiosis by imputing some final or definitive meaning. There was much wrangling over whether the work of Derrida or Foucault or Deleuze had succeeded in circumventing the pitfalls of interpretation via alternate modes of commentary. And more recent arguments by Sharon Marcus, Steven Best, and Heather Love have made a strong case for the merits of description over interpretation, as less invested in a self-flattering image of the heroic, truth-uncovering critic. Susan Sontag had touched on similar issues in her essay half a century ago when she declared that interpretation had become stifling, even reactionary. We needed, she declared, to recover our senses: to see more, hear more, feel more—to create an erotics rather than hermeneutics of art.
From another angle, the growth of computer-aided research also raises intriguing questions about the limits of hermeneutic models. It is not that data speaks for itself—scholars rely on interpretative assumptions, after all, in designing relevant tasks for computers to perform and in making sense of the results. And yet such research can also bring unexpected connections and correlations into view, thanks to an expanded archive and dramatic increase in scale. The shift from close reading of a handful of works to the processing of hundreds or thousands of texts may highlight schemas invisible to the human eye; computational analysis, at its best, generates patterns that seem surprising, counterintuitive, strange.
Moreover, the expanding reach of media networks has prompted reflections on interpretation as a dying art—one that is tied, for better and for worse, to the culture of the book. Is the act of interpreting at odds with decreasing attention spans and a proclivity toward surfing, skimming, and sampling in an age of distraction? The findings of cognitive neuroscientists seem to chime with the concerns of some cultural commentators: that...