We’re all aware of the current hysteria around “AI” (which resolutely continues to fail to exist), robotics, etc. Along those lines, I’ve just been reading a serious discussion about how to make education “robot-proof.” It involves an interlocking set of supposedly “new” skills, having to do with peer interaction, data-analysis, etc., all adding up to something called “humanics” (yes, really)–which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much ideally designed to be mastered by robots.

The thing is: We already know what kind of learning is robot-proof. It is, as Gadamer would say, seeing what is questionable–or perhaps, in a more literal translation of fragwürdig, question-worthy, worthy of becoming an occasion for posing a question. Broaden this hermeneutic insight just slightly, and you get the utterly ordinary and yet totally profound challenge of (a) noticing what’s interesting and (b) trying to say why it’s interesting.

This is what I do, in the literary classroom, all the way down to the first-year level. In fact, especially there. I give my 200 or so 18-yr-olds, their heads buzzing with Civ 6 and XBox N, their mouths full of clichés about machine learning and Big Dayda, a poem. And I tell them to tell me something interesting about it.

THEY HATE THIS. But they kind of like it too. And for good reason, on both scores.

On the territory of their own hermeneutic consciousness, there neither are, have been, nor ever will be, any robots.

What do they study, again?

Here is a partial, but entirely factual, listing of session and/or paper topics at the recent conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major annual meeting for North American literary academics:

Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
The idea of “West Asia”
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Second-language instruction
The Cold War
The First World War
Being black in Germany
Saint Theresa
The English Civil War
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Elmore Leonard
Doing business in Italy
Amiri Baraka
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Postwar Japan
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.

the safe side

Bin thinkin again about dialogue – a big theoretical topic for me. My thinking about it is based on my reading of Hans-Georg Gadamer, for whom the ordinary business of talking with another person is the venue, and the model, for any understanding of anything. The significance of dialogue is primarily epistemological, not civic or ethical – except insofar as Gadamer’s insights tend to run counter to soft-left cant. There is no such thing, according to Gadamer, as seeing a given question from somebody else’s point of view. If there were, we wouldn’t need to talk to others at all. By the same token, there is no dialogic imperative to temper or suppress your own views, in the name of politeness or respect. For the only way your interlocutor can gain possible access to your perspective is if you try to express it, clearly and fully.

Indeed, Gadamer argues that we do not succesfully show respect by holding ourselves back in conversation – as though supposing that the other is too weak for us, or that we know all about him already. Quite the contrary: the true dialogic attitude is an attempt to maintain complete openness, which extends to our interlocutor precisely because it starts with ourselves. The goal, meanwhile, is not to obtain or maintain good relations, but to understand something – what the dialogue is about, its subject-matter. For the other’s view of the subject-matter is the indispensable confirmation, or disconfirmation, of our own.

Thus Gadamer’s philosophy of conversation is Socratic, and, in a sense, selfish. Conversation is the interactive game that we must play if we want to know. As in any game (contra Derrida), it is normative to try to play well. Finally, the game cannot even get going without a kickoff – which, as Gadamer puns in German, amounts to giving offense (Anstoss). Conversation is a space of risk, or it ain’t conversation at all.

So I have thought, for the last ten years or so. As a matter of fact, Gadamer’s view of conversation has seemed to me so compelling that I have not really even granted the possibility of a validly countervailing theory. Obviously, this is an attitude of meta-dialogic complacency, itself standing in need of an offensive shock. And perhaps there is another, opposing, yet possibly correct way of theorizing the very nature of conversation; which has the capacity to enrich thinking about it, without displacing the Gadamerian view.

This possibility was opened up for me, as often happens, by a student. The student was very bright and capable, but not especially keen on my teaching – you can always tell – which she seemed to find questionable or dubious or troubling. I am always fascinated by students who aren’t buying what I’m selling, in part because they frustrate me (I’m not going to lie about that), but also in part because I take it for granted that they may have something to teach me. Anyway, this student – let’s call her Leah – was a member of an upper-level, theoretically-inflected seminar I was teaching. The students in the group were all working on projects they had formulated themselves, with the help of different faculty supervisors in the English Department. The literary profession being what it is, few of these students had projects that we might call transitive to the world. Rather, their projects were reflexive to the profession. Their goal, in other words, was to write a certain kind of text – a clever essay; not to figure out, or even identify, a problem with a certain subject-matter.

As usual, in this sort of situation, my pedagogic approach was to ask questions – questions about questions, if we want to be cute about it. I pressed my students to try to tell me what they were fundamentally after; what they were trying to ask; and about what; and why. Some students responded well, and I felt that our conversations were useful for them. Leah, by contrast, clammed up. I could see that she was smart, and that she had something she wanted to push back at me. But I could also see that if I asked her what it was, she would find my inquiry aggressive and back off even farther. So I left her to herself, and kept up my hermeneutic pressure on her classmates. Leah just sat there, for weeks, dutifully and rather grumpily, poking at her laptop, looking at her nails, and rolling her eyes.

Until one day she put up her hand and said: “I guess I have some problems with the approach we’re taking here. You’re always asking us to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what the theories we’re working with actually achieve. Why do they have to achieve anything? I mean, we learn these theories, and they apply to texts in certain ways, and once we know the theories we can apply them to the texts. We can do the kinds of readings that the theories let us do. You always seem to be asking us what we’re finding out about from our texts, but I’m not really sure we need to be finding anything out. We’re not like researchers in biology or computer science or anything. We’re just producing readings.”

Leah’s rant had been worth waiting for. It amounted to an indictment of contemporary literary education that was all the more damning for being offered as a defence. I had been teaching, as she correctly perceived, the standing need to avoid dialectical vacancy in literary-critical practice. Leah took that claim and responded, positively, that dialectical vacancy – not being about anything – was the point of literary-critical practice. The literary classroom, in her view, was not a place where subject-matters were opened up through the asking of questions; but rather, a place where subject-matters were kept at bay by the reiteration of answers. This was “producing readings”: the interminable application of unfalsifiable theories to incidental texts with indeterminate results. This was what Leah felt she had been taught, in the four years of her B.A. It was conversation as finger-painting. I would not have thought that the antithesis of my own position could have been stated so baldly.

I told Leah that she had certainly sketched a different view of inquiry from my own. That was true, but lame. And here is the beginning of the point – or the asking of the question. I didn’t tell Leah exactly what I thought. Why not? She had certainly done her best to hit me with a rocket – which, in my Gadamerian view, is consistent with the way in which the conversational game ought to be played. In that sense, Leah’s defence of dialectical vacancy was self-cancelling – a good starting-point for refutation. But I didn’t offer one. Why not?

I suppose because, as Leah’s teacher, I wanted to encourage her to stay in the conversation. I wanted her to feel safe there. This, perhaps, indicates a confound to the Gadamerian dialectic. True, I had left Leah alone for all those weeks because I did not want to presume that I knew what she was thinking, or how her end of the conversation ought to be managed. It was part of my own exposure – my own risk, as it were – not to claim the right to compel her participation. And that refusal of compulsion extended to holding open her retreat, and even to making her feel that she did not need to take it. In other words, I could do a work-around on my tactical reticence to make it consistent with the Gadamerian dialectic of openness and fullness. But this would be evasive. Falsifying the conversation is falsifying the conversation – especially if it is done for the sake of the conversation. I held back on the offense I could have given in response to Leah, precisely in order to hold open the possibility that the conversation might continue to be productive. And I felt, and still feel, that this was optimal dialogic procedure. And so the confound: conversation as a space of safety, perhaps, is prerequisite to conversation as a space of risk.

What do we do with this insight (if it is one)? I’m not sure. But I am grateful to my student for helping me to see the complacency in my own relative comfort with conversational risk.


critical-phenomenological thought for the day

Understanding, Hans-Georg Gadamer teaches, is an event. It is an experience (Erfahrung) that we undergo: like the way a player experiences a moment in the game; or an audience member experiences the climax of a tragedy. Indeed, understanding is an experience of a very special kind, which precludes or overwhelms our front-of-mind consciousness. Gadamer points out that the player of a game, in the midst of playing it, knows in one sense “this is only a game.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense – and this is the key point – s/he does not and cannot know that. For knowing “this is only a game” would preclude or impede effective involvement in the game. Analogously, Gadamer claims, when we are in the midst of understanding something, we know in one sense “I am currently understanding.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense, we do not and cannot know that. For knowing, in a front-of-mind way, “I am currently understanding” would preclude or impede our being fully involved – lost, for the moment – in the understanding. And getting lost in this way is precisely part and parcel of the kind of experience that understanding is.

Now literary criticism, let’s say, is the study of texts as texts. Understanding is the fulfillment of any text. Therefore, literary criticism includes the study of understanding. (This means, for those who follow this sort of thing, that criticism subsumes hermeneutics.) To study anything is to try to understand it. Therefore, criticism has as one of its goals to understand understanding.

But if understanding is an experience, along the lines already described, then understanding understanding can only mean (1) trying to understand this very special experience and (2) doing so precisley by trying to have this experience. For there would appear to be no other way to do it. The literary-critical classroom, unlike the classrooms of other disciplines, where this or that object is examined, will be a classroom in which the experience of understanding itself is provoked, and for its own sake. The literary text, moreover, unlike texts of other kinds, will not try to present this or that object, but will try to make available the experience of understanding, just as such. Studying such a text, in such a critical mode, will be, if not the only, then probably the best, way to understand understanding.

So, like, that’s why we do it.

on Ratzinger and reading

Another thing I’m not is a theologian. Nonetheless, here’s something I wrote a few years ago on Benedict’s exegesis (his interpretation of the Bible) and hermeneutics (his theory of interpretation generally). Warning: very long and dense.


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shortly after becoming Pope Benedict XVI, published a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Unsurprisingly, for a pontiff who served as doctrinal enforcer for his very conservative predecessor (John Paul II), Benedict seeks in this work to refute liberal theologians, whom he constructs as exegetic sceptics and moral relativists. Against these, Benedict presents his own work as an exegetic objectivism, founded in the stable and self-identical meanings spoken by Christ.

To be sure, Benedict recognizes that interpretative relativism presents a genuine danger for any reader of the New Testament. This is because of the extraordinary readings of the Old Testament offered by the biblical Christ (plus Peter and Paul). The annihilation of the innumerable Jewish laws in the single Christian law of love – coupled with the insistence to be fulfilling Torah complexity thereby, without abrogating “one jot or tittle” – places the Gospel on a paradoxical, even an antinomian, footing.  Mustn’t the law of love have the power to annihilate any and all scriptural injunctions, replacing them with “humanistic” interpretations, as long as the latter appear consistent with the law of love? Doesn’t Christ himself give license for this sort of thing?

Benedict answers very clearly, and very firmly, in the negative. Christ could radically reinterpret scripture, the pontiff writes, solely and precisely because He was the Christ: the Word of God, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit; the scriptural author, in effect, made flesh. Having determined, authorially, the meaning of Torah in the first place, Christ is uniquely and exclusively, empowered to revise its meaning. Thus in examining the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christ’s revisionist treatment of it, we are not exposing ourselves to “the personal opinion of one teacher,” a mere “liberal reform rabbi.” As a matter of fact, Benedict writes,

“Jesus’s teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from “face-to-face” dialogue – from the vision of the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption. That is just what the learned men of Jesus’ time judged it to be, and they did so precisely because they could not accept its inner grounding: seeing and knowing face-to-face.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 7)

The interpretative diktat of the divine author, emanating from a dialogue that is before all dialogue, is the only standard that the Pharisees could have accepted for Jesus’s inversions of Torah. But unbeknownst to them, this is exactly the standard that he (on Benedict’s reading) brought. It is precisely “adherence to Jesus himself, to his Torah” that hermeneutically validates the Gospel: for

“if Jesus is God, then he is entitled and able to handle the Torah as he does. On that condition alone does he have the right to interpret the Mosaic order of divine commands in such a radically new way as only the Law-giver – God himself – can claim to do.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 115 [my emphasis])

It follows that Christ gives Christians (according to Benedict’s argument) no hermeneutic licence at all. He sanctions no new ways of making sense out of scripture. Rather, Christ sanctions new senses of scripture – which he, out of an “original understanding” unique to himself, makes.

To be sure, Christians are called upon to believe that the resulting interpretations of Jewish law are, without any doubt or question, valid (even for Jews). This validity, however, rests only and terminally on its posited origin in Christ. Gospel hermeneutics, for Benedict, devolves on the mystery of the Incarnation. Therefore, for anybody to read the Bible as Christ reads Torah would be blasphemy, not exegesis. It would be tantamount to claiming Christ’s hermeneutic position. Even the Church, despite its traditional claim to be filled by the Holy Spirit, shrinks (in Benedict’s construction) from such an usurpation. In this way, Benedict purchases doctrinal security from exegetic scepticism and moral relativism. The intensionality of Christ, placed before and beyond scripture, controls and determines its meaning absolutely and finally.

But at a very high price. Benedict’s objectivism depends on a posit of incomprehensible validation. Christ’s interpretations, Benedict tells us, are a priori valid; but only Christ can understand that a priori validity. All anybody else can understand, or needs to understand, is that Christ, and Christ alone, understands it. Therefore (1) nobody else should claim or expect to follow, in the last analysis, the hermeneutic logic of Christ’s insights into Torah; and (2) Christ’s power of incomprehensible validation (incomprehensible, that is, to anybody who is not Christ) is his unique and effective exegetic privilege. We must be prepared to accept, precisely without understanding, the posited validity of Christ’s interpretations. Acceptance, for us, must be our exegetic validation; and such validation, by definition, must be incomprehensible.

Achtung: incomprehensible validation, on Benedict’s view, is supposed to be a unique privilege of Christ. Yet in trying not to touch that privilege, we find ourselves taking it up. We find ourselves defining Christ’s hermeneutics by an idea of ours: namely, the idea of a limit to our understanding. We propose that we understand that Christ’s validation is something that we can’t understand. But how can we possibly understand that?

Meanwhile: if we are unable to understand what makes Christ’s interpretations valid, that amounts to saying that we cannot, finally, understand them to be valid. (We can only accept them to be valid; which, etc.) Now, understanding an interpretation means understanding it to be valid or invalid. Understanding an interpretation to be valid is entailed in understanding that valid interpretation. Presumably, Christ gives only valid interpretations (this would appear to be a theological necessity). Therefore, if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations to be valid, it follows that we simply cannot understand Christ’s interpretations.

But if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations, we cannot specify what they say or don’t say. For being able to specify that would be understanding them; which, apparently, we cannot do. Now, if we cannot specify what Christ’s interpretations say or don’t say, we surely can claim no grounds for validating or invalidating anybody else’s account of what they say or don’t say. For our account of what the interpretations say or don’t say can make no claim of correctness. All accounts of Christ’s interpretations, therefore – all readings of the Gospel – must be accounted equally valid, and/or invalid. But that amounts to the view that we don’t even know what the Gospel says. This is a position of absolute, even incoherent, exegetic scepticism. But this is what follows from Benedict’s attempt to establish exegetic objectivism.

Finally: Benedict is saying that Christ’s interpretations of Torah are a priori valid. An interpretation of Torah is sound and correct (mutatis mutandis) simply on the basis that Christ gave it.

Now, Christ can, presumably, experience no restriction on his interpretative choices. This would be inconsistent with divine freedom, as well as with the very idea of an interpretation – a selection of textual meanings, out of the range of all possible meanings. Therefore, Christ could have given any number of different interpretations (of a given Torah precept) from the one that he actually gave.

Moreover, the interpretation Christ actually gave is no more intrinsically valid, in and of itself, than any of the other possible interpretations he could have given. The Gospel, in short, could have been different (even though it is not).

Christ could, in principle, enthusiastically have joined in stoning the adultress.

He could have excommunicated himself for healing on the Sabbath.

He could have insisted that his Gentile followers undergo circumcision.

Such possibilities, however, make the Gospel that is – as opposed to the Gosepls that might have been – a mere entry in an illimitable, and effectively random, catalog of potentially-valid religions. But this, again, is exactly the sort of view against which Benedict conceives himself to be polemicizing.

Willy-nilly, Benedict has repeated the error of Plato’s Euthyphro – who thinks that piety is just what is God-beloved, rather than thinking that the gods love what is pious. Such voluntarism evacuates, rather than safeguarding, the ethical content of pious phenomena. They become arbitrary, conventional, from the divine point of view. And the divine point of view is exactly the one that matters.

The way to save exegesis from scepticism, in fact, is not to propose (with the pontiff) that Christ’s interpretations are a priori valid. It is to propose, rather, that Christ gives a priori valid interpretations – but precisely as valid, rather than as arbitrary re-determinations of what counts as valid. They are a challenge for human interpreters, the recipients of the divine to teaching, to understand, with the tools and abilities given to them for that purpose.

Similarly, the way to save the Gospel from relativism is not to point out (with Benedict) that God, freely, has given it. It is to point out, rather, that God has freely given the Gospel – and nothing other than the Gospel —  the truth as the truth, not as one of any number of ways “the truth” could have been. The Gospel, in this manner, is opened up as something that the individual Christian can, and must, try to understand, precisely in the very nature of its challenging validity. And that means, finally, that the hermeneutic keys to the Kingdom cannot be left, pace Benedict, in its ruler’s keep.

Benedict’s exegesis is authoritarian; his hermeneutics, empty. His is a theory of reading as not reading at all. There’s a long tradition, going back at least to Augustine, behind this kind of view. More’s the pity.