Interpretive ingenuity is in one sense limitless, and yet obsessive readers are doomed to met their own reflections wherever they look. 'Once the context goes, anything goes' is a standard complaint about deconstruction, but the record of deconstructive practice is quite the reverse: as in a glass darkly, the method discovers itself in every text it scrutinises. New Critics hungered for paradox and irony, and found that even the despised Tennyson would, in the end, yield up those qualities. Deconstructionists seek indeterminacy, self-subversion, transgression, vertigo and aporia, and find them everywhere. Postmodern theorists fascinated by 'textual reflexivity' display, unwittingly, a fascination with their own mental processes. The real 'problem of interpretation' is not to prevent it from being arbitrary, but to restrain the power of obsessive or reflexive reading. Theorists of several current persuasions would argue, inconsistency notwithstanding, that any such restraint is (a) impossible, (b) repressive, and (c) politically motivated. Obsessive reading, however, is closely related to fundamentalist reading, which is by no means the exclusive property of the far religious right. Teachers who believe that they are radicalising ther students by demanding that they uncover a politically correct message in every text are, like their apparent opposites in clean-cut Bible colleges, giving instruction in fundamentalist reading, which is not something that should be taught, however ineptly, in universities.
As for the argument that all we can ever see are our own reflections, it is routinely disingenuous: the real thrust is that all you can see in a text is your own mystified reflection (or that of the ideology which has 'constructed' you), whereas we, possessed of theoretical insight, can see through it.
28 October 2005
A fine line
Going through some old notes, I found what amounts to John Harwood's parting shot in Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation: