Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Review: Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory 2

I'm making my way through Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory, a series of foundational lectures on hermeneutics that he gave in 1973 at Texas Christian University.

The first chapter was Language as Discourse.
Now the second of four: Speaking and Writing

1. Introduction
"No interpretation theory is possible that does not come to grips with the problem of writing" (25). Ricoeur has a two-fold purpose in the second essay. First, he wants to show that the theory of discourse in the first essay is what makes possible the transition from speaking to writing. Second, he wants to connect the intentional "exteriorization" of writing with a central problem of hermeneutics: distanciation.

2. From Speaking to Writing
In writing, we have "the detachment of meaning from the event" (25). Nevertheless, Ricoeur disagrees with Derrida that writing has a distinct root from speech. Rather, "writing is the full manifestation of discourse" (25-26). He uses Roman Jakobson's schema of communication mentioned in the first essay with six main factors: speaker, hearer, medium, code, situation, and message.

Message and Medium: Fixation
The first of Jakobson's six factors Ricoeur discusses is the medium of communication in writing. "The most obvious change from speaking to writing concerns the relation between the message and its medium or channel" (26). This medium "fixes" discourse in some exterior bearer. It is not language as langue that is fixed (the system of language) but "what we want to fix is discourse." "Discourse as event disappears" (27).

"What writing actually does fix is not the event of speaking but the 'said' of speaking" (27). What is this "said" of speaking? It is "the intentional exteriorization constitutive of the couple 'event-meaning.'"

"The locutionary act exteriorizes itself in the sentence, the inner structure of which may be identified and re-identified as being the same, and which, therefore, may be inscribed and preserved." That is, the  specific words that are spoken can be exactly the same in writing as in speaking.

"To the extent that the illocutionary act can be exteriorized thanks to grammatical paradigms and procedures expressive of its 'force,' it too can be inscribed." Remember that the illocutionary force of speech is what that language is intended to do by the speaker (e.g., assert, promise, command, etc.). Because such force can often involve gesture, can involve mimicry, and other nonarticulated aspects of discourse (prosody), "the illocutionary force is less inscribable than the propositional meaning" (27).

"The perlocutionary act is the least inscribable aspect of discourse," that is, what the speaker intends the effect of the speech to be on the hearer.

"Writing is much more than mere material fixation" (28). Its invention had impact on the extension of political rule, the development of economic, the perpetuation of history, the creation of legal codes, etc. It also brings human thought directly to a material (or now electronic) medium. It is a short-cut that by-passes speaking in the communicative process. "The fate of discourse is delivered over to littera, not to vox" (29).

Message and Speaker
In spoken discourse, the "ability of discourse to refer back to the speaking subject presents a character of immediacy because the speaker belongs to the situation of interlocution" (29). "The subjective intention of the speaker and the discourse's meaning overlap each other in such a way that it is the same thing to understand what the speaker means and what his discourse means."

"With written discourse, however, the author's intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide" (29). "It is of decisive significance." And here is the clincher, perhaps the most important comment Ricoeur makes in his lectures thus far: "Inscription becomes synonymous with the semantic autonomy of the text, which results from the disconnection of the mental intention of the author from the verbal meaning of the text, of what the author meant and what the text means" (29-30).

This is the point where exegesis is born, because "a set of meanings... have broken their moorings to the psychology of the author" (30). Ricoeur suggests there are now two pitfalls to avoid. The one is W. K. Wimsatt's famous "intentional fallacy," which sees the author's intention as the "criterion for any valid interpretation of the text."

Yet Ricoeur also warns about what he calls the "fallacy of the absolute text: "the fallacy of hypostasizing the text as an authorless entity" (30). For Ricoeur, it is "impossible to cancel out" the fact that a text "remains a discourse told by somebody, said by someone to someone else about something." To say otherwise reduces texts "to natural objects."

Let me suggest, if I am understanding Ricoeur correctly, that he is not assuming here that the somebody speaking is the original author. In other words, autonomous texts can become something "said" by the reader to other readers/hearers. I have myself often said something similar. Meaning is a matter of minds. A text without a context (of minds interpreting it) is simply a collection of squiggles on a page.

"The semantic autonomy of the text makes the relation of event and meaning more complex... The authorial meaning becomes properly a dimension of the text to the extent that the author is not available for questioning" (30). Ricoeur is not around for me to make sure that my interpretation in the previous paragraph is the one he intended (although I'm quite certain there are Ricoeur experts out there who could reliably tell me). "The authorial meaning is the dialectical counterpart of the verbal meaning, and they have to be construed in terms of each other."

Message and Hearer
"Whereas spoken discourse is addressed to someone who is determined in advanced [sic] by the dialogical situation--it is addressed to you, the second person--a written text is addressed to an unknown reader and potentially to whoever knows how to read" (31). This is the striking "universaliziaton [sic] of the audience." The text is "liberated from the narrowness of the face-to-face situation."

On the other hand, this universalization is only potential. A book "is addressed to only a section of the public and reaches its appropriate readers through media that are themselves submitted to social rules of exclusion and admission" (31). Yet its ultimate readership and the "recognition of the work by the audience created by the work is an unpredictable event." "It is the response of the audience which makes the text important and therefore significant."

"It is part of the meaning of a text to be open to an indefinite number of readers and, therefore, of interpretations. This opportunity for multiple readings is the dialectical counterpart of the semantic autonomy of the text" (31-32). "Hermeneutics begins where dialogue ends" (32).

Message and Code
Ricoeur suggests that the "code" of which discourse partakes when fixed in writing must certainly include literary genres. "Literary genres display some conditions which theoretically could be described without considering writing" (32). Speaking can have literary genres too, like poems, narratives, etc. Genres produce "new entities of language longer than the sentence, organic wholes irreducible to a mere addition of sentences."

Genres, Ricoeur suggests, "are the technical rules presiding over" the production of "works" like poems, narratives, and essays (33). These works are like works of art except they are "works of discourse." They are productions that involve craftsmanship.  "When discourse is transferred to the field of production it is also treated as a stuff to be shaped."

"Even oral expressions of poetic or narrative compositions rely on processes equivalent to writing. The memorization of epic poems, lyrical songs, parables and proverbs, and their ritual recitation tend to fix and even to freeze the form of the work in such a way that memory appears as the support of an inscription similar to that provided by external marks" (33).

Message and Reference
The most complex changes that take place in writing, according to Ricoeur, have to do with the reference function of communication. "The distinction between sense and reference introduces in discourse a more complex dialectic than that of event and meaning" (34).

"In spoken discourse the ultimate criterion for the referential scope of what we say is the possibility of showing the thing referred to as a member of the situation common to both speaker and hearer" (34). "All references of oral language rely on monstrations," on gestures and aspects of grammar that point to a common frame of reference between speaker and hearer (34-35). These monstrations "depend on the situation perceived as common by the members of the dialogue. All references in the dialogical situation consequently are situational" (35). [1]

"It is this grounding of reference in the dialogical situation that is shattered by writing" (35). "A gap appears between identification and monstration. The absence of a common situation generated by the spatial and temporal distance between writer and reader; the cancellation of the absolute here and now by the substitution of material external marks for the voice, face, and body of the speaker as the absolute origin of all the places in space and time; and the semantic autonomy of the text, which severs it from the present of the writer and opens it to an indefinite range of potential readers in an indeterminate time"--all these can contribute to a change in the reader's sense of the reference of the discourse."

What are the consequences of this "extension of the scope of reference beyond the narrow boundaries of the dialogical situation" (36)? First, "thanks to writing, man and only man has a world and not just a situation." It frees humanity up to refer beyond the limits of an immediate situation.

Second, we can now write fiction. We can now emphasize the message for its own sake at the expense of reference, relating to what Roman Jackobson called the "poetic" function of language, where it need not refer to the real world. Ricoeur contends "that discourse cannot fail to be about something" (36). However, there can be an "eclipsing of the reference" in fictional accounts. Only in a few very sophisticated texts, such as Mallarmé's poetry, is there a text completely devoid of reference.

"Poetic texts speak about the world. But not in a descriptive way" (37). "We ought to enlarge our concept of the world, therefore, not only to allow for non-ostensive but still descriptive references, but also to non-ostensive and non-descriptive references, those of poetic diction."

"For me, the world is the ensemble of references opened up by every kind of text, descriptive or poetic, that I have read, understood, and loved. And to understand a text is to interpolate among the predicates of our situation all the significations that make a Welt [a world] out of our Umwelt [environment, 'world around']" (37).

Ricoeur ends this section with a nod to Heidegger. "What we understand first in a discourse is not another person, but a 'pro-ject,' that is, the outline of a new way of being in the world. Only writing... in freeing itself... reveals this destination of discourse as projecting a world" (37).

3. A Plea for Writing
In this section, Ricoeur considers philosophical objections to writing. "Is not this intentional exteriorization delivered over to material marks a kind of alienation?" (38). Ricoeur intends to combat this objection with the argument that exteriority is a "necessary condition of the hermeneutical process."

Against Writing
Two philosophers in particular have attacked writing: Plato and Henri Bergson. For Plato, the exteriority of writing was "contrary to genuine reminiscence" (38).  In the Phaedrus, the Egyptian king argues that the invention of letters will make souls more forgetful. Ricoeur describes Plato's position: "Writing is like painting which generates a non-being, which in turn remains silent when asked to answer" (38-39). "Writings are indifferent to their addressees... heedless of whom they reach" (39).

For Rousseau, writing puts us on a path to separation, tyranny, and inequality. "Writing ignores its addressee just as it conceals its author" (39). "Instead of the Word of God, we have the rule of the learned and the domination of the priesthood."

For Bergson, "the written word... has severed its ties with the feeling, effort, and dynamism of thought" in the speaker... It scatters and isolates. This is why the authentic creators such as Socrates and Jesus have left no writings, and why the genuine mystics renounce statements and articulated thought" (40).

The dead imprint is unable to rescue itself.

Writing and Iconicity
These critiques call Ricoeur to legitimate writing. To do so, he considers "writing as a chapter in a general theory of iconicity" (40). In one respect, he will challenge Plato's sense that a painting is weaker and less real than living beings, mere shadow of reality.

Rather, Ricoeur suggests that images can be "iconic augmentation." The "strategy of contraction and miniaturization yields more by handling less" (40). [2] The main effect of a painting is "to increase the meaning of the universe by capturing it in the network of its abbreviated signs" (41). The paintings of the Dutch artists, for example, enhanced contrasts and gave colors their resonance. Painters of that period were "able to write a new text of reality."

"Iconicity, then, means the revelation of a real more real than ordinary reality" (42). It produces, not merely reproducing. This language seems very similar to what Ricoeur has said in the previous section about writing being able to produce a world. So also, the use of images ("iconicity") creates a new reality.

For Ricoeur, "this theory of iconicity--as aesthetic augmentation of reality--gives us the key to a decisive answer to Plato's critique of writing. Iconicity is the re-writing of reality. Writing... is a particular case of iconicity. The inscription of discourse is the transcription of the world, and the transcription is not reduplication, but metamorphosis" (42).

4. Inscription and Productive Distanciation
In this second lecture, Ricoeur has mentioned the autonomy of the text from its author, the detachment of a text from its writer. In this final section, he addresses the problematic counterpart--the "appropriation" of a text by its reader. "To appropriate is to make 'one's own' what was 'alien'" (43). "The problem of writing becomes a hermeneutical problem" at its complementary pole, reading.

The distance of a text from its reader is, on the one hand, a given, "simply a fact" (43). But it is more importantly a "dialectical trait." It stands at the center of a struggle between "otherness" and "ownness." This is the heart of overcoming cultural estrangement. "Distanciation," the otherness of the text, is the "dynamic counterpart of our need, our interest, and our effort to overcome cultural estrangement."

"Reading is the pharmakon, the 'remedy,' by which the meaning of the text is 'rescued' from the estrangement of distanciation and put in a new proximity, a proximity which suppresses and preserves the cultural distance and includes the otherness within the ownness" (43).

How can we "become contemporaneous with past geniuses," the question of the German Romantics (44)? Only this dialectic, this back-and-forth of distanciation and appropriation gives us hope in the absence of the kind of absolute knowledge that Hegel pretended to find.

"A tradition raises no philosophical problem as long as we live and dwell within it in the naiveté of the first certainty. Tradition only becomes problematic when this first naiveté is lost" (44). [3]

"The appropriation of the past proceeds along an endless struggle with distanciation. Interpretation, philosophically understood, is nothing else than an attempt to make estrangement and distanciation productive" (44).

Next Monday, lecture 3 on "Metaphor and Symbol"

[1] It seems quite easy to come up with objections to the idea of "all" here, but no doubt Ricoeur could address these objections and, in some way, surely my questions represent my own lack of full appreciation of what he is saying. Could not a literary work be recited in an oral conversation, in which the dynamics would be as distant as any writing? What of the many times when a hearer can't picture that to which the speaker is referring? I feel confident that I would have been lost in person to hear much of these lectures in Ricoeur's book, even if I had been present. What if you were to walk up on a conversation in progress that was not about the visible present of the two interlocutors? Would you always be able to tell by monstrations that to which the speaker was referring? No doubt Ricoeur would respond to this paragraph as in itself a misunderstanding of his intended meaning. Yet I feel confident I would not have understood more clearly if I had been present when he delivered these words (although I could presumably have questioned him then).

[2] Ricoeur does not mention Aristotle here, but we can see a glimpse of Aristotle's critique of Plato on art at this point. While Plato saw visual art as simply a copy of a copy of the ideal reality, which took us further away from the reality, Aristotle suggested that, for us to recognize that to which a picture referred, it had to capture the essence of the thing. The "less" that it showed was that which captured the essence or "form" of the thing.

[3] In his earlier work, The Symbolism of Evil, Ricoeur speaks of the possibility of a second naiveté, when we knowingly reclaim and find meaning in a tradition after we become aware that its meanings have changed in the process of transmission. The explanatory power of this brief comment above is astounding. If you look at my post on the doctrine of depravity yesterday, you can immediately sense how Paul's original understanding of sin changed almost imperceptibly as it passed to Augustine and Calvin and Wesley and beyond, not to mention the fact that Paul's own understandings were distinct from those of the psalmist or Genesis.

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