- On Interpretive Conflict by John Frow
Interpretation has long had a bad name in theoretical discourse. Traditionally regarded as foundational to disciplines such as literary studies, history, and philology, not to mention theology and law, a reaction began in the 1960s, which has grown in strength until the present day. From Susan Sontag's seminal essay "Against Interpretation" (1964) via the poststructuralist tropes of the plurality and indeterminacy of meaning to Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht's move from meaning to presence, Franco Moretti's from close to distant reading, and Rita Felski's from critical thinking to the affective uses of literature, a certain anti-hermeneutical consensus has formed, disavowing the centrality of interpretation in the humanities. While moderate versions of this consensus suggest that interpretation is a naïve approach that redescribes and ultimately replaces the text, more radical versions contend that the act of interpretation does violence to the text, dominating and homogenising it, and stripping away its non-conforming aspects and meanings.
In the light of this prevailing anti-hermeneutical mood, John Frow's On Interpretive Conflict is a welcome intervention, one that makes a strong case for the universality of interpretation ("there is no escaping the imperative to interpret" ) while at the same time presenting an original approach to this age-old theme.
In the substantial introduction, Frow articulates his theory of interpretation as inherently conflictual. Rather than setting out an interpretive method that can be applied to a range of different objects, the book proposes a meta-interpretation of interpretation, aiming to foreground how individual interpretive acts are framed and shaped by interpretive regimes that are "institutive" in the sense that they "establish an object, bring it into being as an object of knowledge and understanding and value, and generate ways of reflecting upon it" (41). The aim of the book, which Frow pursues via four case studies, is to develop ways of describing such interpretive regimes and the conflicts that exist between them.
Chapter 1 analyses the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the narrow and controversial decision of which ruled that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees individual citizens the right to purchase and possess firearms. Frow details the positions taken by various parties, including expert statements and dissenting opinions, yet focuses in particular on the decision itself. Written by Justice Antonin Scalia, this decision represents an "originalist" position, which holds that the statutes of the Constitution should be interpreted and applied with reference to their "original public meaning." Frow examines the theoretical underpinnings of this textualist-historicist framework, showing how it draws on linguistics, historical semantics, legal history and legal hermeneutics, yet applies its guiding principles selectively, seeking evidence for what is in effect a foregone—and political rather than historical or juridical—conclusion. The study of Heller thereby introduces two key themes of Frow's book, [End Page 585] namely that the meaning of a text is a function of its historical uses, and that interpretation is a political act, inseparable from the interests and agendas of the interpreter.
If Chapter 1 looks at interpretive conflicts at a single point in time, the following chapter offers instead a diachronic perspective. Frow analyses the ways in which the interpretation of Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice has changed over time, focusing specifically on the conflict between a standard interpretation that reads the character as an anti-Semitic caricature and the history of "recuperative interpretation" (86) that casts him as a more sympathetic figure, if not a victim. Tracing the shifts in the critical literature as well as in the performance history from early seventeenth-century London to early twenty-first century Israel, Frow shows how the meaning of the play cannot be derived from the text alone, but is produced within successive interpretive regimes, each shaped by the interests and concerns of their historical moment.
In Chapter 3, Frow turns to art history and aesthetic theory. Taking as its starting point Hans-Georg Gadamer's concept of the image, which posits an "ontological communion...