Too Far or Not Far Enough? Alain Badiou and the Hermeneutics of Small Moments

By Davis, Collin | The Comparatist, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Too Far or Not Far Enough? Alain Badiou and the Hermeneutics of Small Moments


Davis, Collin, The Comparatist


INTRODUCTION: CRITICAL EXCESS

According to Paul Ricoeur, post-Heideggerian hermeneutics assumes what he calls "the necessity for all understanding to be mediated by an interpretation which exhibits its insurmountable plurivocity" (56). (1) There are two key elements here: first, there is no understanding without interpretation, no direct, intuitive access to the "thing itself"; and second, meanings are multiple, unstable, subject to dispute and change. Interpretation has always already begun, and so long as humans continue to inhabit the earth, it will never come to an end. The interpretation of works of art is just a specialized version of something we do all the time in our ordinary lives and interactions. Those of us who are sympathetic to hermeneutics are likely to take such views to be axiomatic to the point of accepting them without question. Even so, whilst describing a general aspect of what it means to be human, this account of the hermeneutic problem offers no solution to specific issues of interpretation. Hermeneutics, I suggest, concedes the instability of meaning but also seeks to rein it in. If there is no final, uniquely correct reading, how do I decide when to stop interpreting? How do I know when I can go further or when I have gone too far? When does interpretation become excessive?

The main body of this article takes the case of the French philosopher Alain Badiou's writing on film to consider the risks and gains of interpretation when it takes place outside the methodological constraints which govern institutionalized practices. The larger problem here is how and whether we should regulate our interpretive endeavours. In the heady days of the theory wars, poststructuralists found themselves accused of endorsing an irresponsible, freewheeling attitude according to which they could say anything they wanted. Although this grossly misrepresented poststructuralism, it was easier to insist that it was not true than it was actually to formulate what the constraints on interpretation might be. If interpretation does not aim to be finally, definitively right, or at least persuasive enough for the time being, then what is its point? By what criteria can we assess its truth or usefulness?

Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and some of his later work cut through this problem by replacing the vocabulary of "right" and "wrong" with "strong" and "weak." "There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations," Bloom tells us (95). Abandoning the goal of interpretive correctness does not, however, mean that every misinterpretation is as good or bad as any other. All readings are misreadings, but some are preferable to others; and the strong/weak dichotomy provides the criteria by which this can be justified. The great poets are strong misreaders of their precursors; and the good critics are in their turn strong misreaders as well. It is important here that the misreading practised by poets is deemed to be replicated, albeit less creatively, by critics. If all interpretation is misinterpretation, then "all criticism is prose poetry" (95). We critics may be flattered to find ourselves characterized as prose poets; and at the same time we may be disconcerted to discover that our efforts at interpretation have no grounding in truth.

In his distinction between strong and weak (mis)readings Bloom makes explicit something which had long underpinned the interpretation of art, particularly as practised by philosophers. I take Martin Heidegger to be a key figure in this context. In his essays on poetry, Heidegger suggested that the ancient rivalry between philosophy and literature could be overcome. For Heidegger, thought and poetry at their finest are the twin peaks of human achievement, different in form yet both engaged in the same quest for understanding. The philosopher might learn more from attending patiently to the words of the poets than from the works of fellow philosophers. …

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