Friday, March 16, 2012

The Frame: A Theory of Textual Interpretation

"Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame." - G.K. Chesterton

     The following is a paper written for a literature class arguing for my (minority) perspective on textual interpretation. I've changed the formatting slightly here and omitted boring endnotes and the list of works cited. It was a fun paper to write, and I hope you enjoy it as well. In the mean time, I'm off to finish that other eight page paper due tonight...

     The author is to a text as the frame is to a picture. The writer plays the role of the absolute authority over the meaning in a text, defining and complimenting the text, or even intentionally removing himself from it. The job of the critical interpreter is not to “pare” the author from the text (Sontag, 209), or anarchically place himself on the same level as the author, but to continually search for the author’s intention, keeping essential critical distance: constantly asking why.
     The frame around a piece of art tells the viewer where the picture is, and where it is not. But not only does the frame create limitation, the frame must compliment or somehow add to the work. As critical readers and textual interpreters, we should not remove the author from the text to interpret it, any less than we should remove the frame from a picture to view it. We must look at a picture in relation to the frame in the same way we must look at a text in relation to the author’s intention. Like Susan Sontag’s observation that “reducing a work of art to its content” (208) is the modern way of understanding something, it is also the popular interpretive choice to remove the author from a text, reducing the text to less than even Sontag herself may have realized. These theories of reduction run parallel to democratic or even anarchic perspectives, while the author-oriented theory presented here aligns itself more closely with a cautious monarchal perspective.
     Most anyone can tell you that absolutism at its worst extreme is despotism. Absolutism however is not limited to derogatory expression. There is such a thing as benevolent dictatorship, though it is rare and unfortunately carries much of the same baggage as despotism. Democracy and federated republics are inventions to stand in the place of the ideal of benevolent dictatorship. The three theories of interpretation presented by Umberto Eco in his essay The Intention of the Text, namely, the “intention of the interpreter,” “the intention of the author,” and the “intention of the text” mirror these political approaches in their methodologies (210). 
     The intention of the interpreter; the “beating a text into shape” (210), parallels the worst extreme of democratic methodology--anarchy--in which the author and reader are on an equal plane, and there is no governing power or limitation on the interpretation of a text. 
     Eco himself proposes something under the same influences as a democratic federated republic. In his theory, the “intention of the text” (210), the text acts like the elected representative in a republic, a sort of middle ground between the people and the governance. In this theory, the interpreter has nearly complete freedom within the bounds of the author’s intention in a text. Some critics of the author-intent oriented theory will still argue that the author does create the boundaries of interpretation, letting the reader know where he can and cannot interpret. The author creates the limitation but inside that limitation, the work can be interpreted in different ways. In other words, the author is reduced to a limiter and nothing more. Republican government in America, the model of Eco’s theory, was only established in the wake of a bloody separation from a corrupt monarchy. Democracy is a compromise, not an ideal. It reduces governance to a limiter and not much more.
     Eco’s misconception of the “intention of the author” theory of interpretation seems to pair with the methodology of despotism. He argues against this interpretive theory by stating that it is is “very difficult to find out and frequently irrelevant for the interpretation of a text” (210). To the contrary, this method of interpretation is only irrelevant if one disregards the critical distance necessary for discerning the authors whom you trust and those whom you do not. Potential for revolution keeps monarchy in check. Similarly, critical distance and constant questioning will keep the author’s intention from influencing the reader’s own perspective outside the text. Critical distance cannot change the author’s perspective, but it can protect the interpreter’s. 
     After observing the frame around a picture, the critical reader cannot blithely accept the whole. We can never leave without asking why. We cannot leave until we have made the decision to accept the absolute meaning of the author as a monarch, or rather to reject that meaning on grounds of critical distance. Many times, the end result will be rejection, but the reader should always search for a “benevolent dictator”--an author who’s perspective does not run against the reader’s--who will produce ideas that can be accepted.
     Frank Kermode’s theory of interpretation as outlined in his essay, “The Genesis of Secrecy” is closer to to this author intent-oriented theory than the two others excerpted in Text Book. He writes, “to divine the true, the latent sense, you need to be of the elect, of the institution” (208). Kermode here acknowledges that there is such thing as a “true,” “latent” meaning in a text. Where Kermode goes awry though, is when he asserts that this “true” meaning can only be discovered by the “elect of the institution.” Kermode defends this assertion by appealing to the parables of Jesus. He neglects to include, though, the key phrase that follows several parables of Jesus: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear;” a phrase that invites any and all to search out meaning, and is not elitist or institutional in any sense of the words.
     Susan Sontag, a writer and interpreter coming from a more democratic interpretive perspective, argues against the use of institutions to box in the meaning of a text. She argues that fitting texts into pre-determined institutions creates a bloated interpretive textual network that she deridingly labels “the thick encrustations of interpretation” (209). For this argument, Susan Sontag can be praised. Though her theory does allow interpreters to read into a text--to look past the significance of the frame-- and make a text “conformable” (208), her position opposing institutionalized interpretation is admirable. Susan Sontag is also on the right track when she writes, “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art” (208). Sontag is referring to and arguing against leaving out the form from a text: the “dim lighting” and “refined feelings” that she mentions later in paragraph four (209). While this argument against reduction is a step in the right direction, the need to make art “about something” eclipses the need to keep the author’s intentions the focus of interpretation. Even in Sontag’s theory that bad interpretation is a “paring down” to the “essentials,” she herself pares the author’s intention from a text in order to make the text “about something.”
     It is common to find photographs or paintings hung without frames at all. In the same way, it is common to find works of literature with no pretense of authorial intent whatsoever. In these cases, the author has often (ironically) intentionally removed intention from his text. When interpreting a text without any clue to the intention of the author either in the text or in the textual network surrounding a text, we can then question why an author is so disconnecting himself from his own text. How does the lack of intention add or subtract to the feel the author is conveying in his work? Does this lack of intention add to the chaos of a work? Does it show that the author has succumbed to the “encrustations of interpreters”? Is the author cautious? Or is he silently screaming rebellion against classical literature? Even in an author’s silence, the critical reader should always ask why.
     All to often, problems and blatant misinterpretations arise from either text-oriented or reader-oriented interpretations. In these cases of paring the author from a text, a medieval phrase intended as a mere pithy title can be interpreted as a racial slur, or an amendment to the Constitution intended to promote liberty can be interpreted to drive a boundary between religion and government. If we take the monarchal approach to literary priority, and cautiously and critically look for the intent of the author in the text and in the textual network around the text, the frequency of textual misunderstandings will be greatly diminished. 
     A text’s author should be critically viewed in direct relation with, the sole authority of, and the determiner of the meaning in a text. Even when the author obscures himself, we must continue to ask why. Ceasing to ask why dangerously removes the necessary critical distance, but asking why only after “paring” the author from a text can place a reader on equally dangerous ground for misinterpretation. The frame is a much more important part of the picture than many think.

     Now that that thing's over, on a completely unrelated note, my forays into the woods in search of the artesian well have finally produced results. After following two other river tributaries to no avail, I found the source of a third trickling stream to be the spring I was after. Tin ladle and all.

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