Thursday, July 24, 2014

From Hermeneutics to Heuretics

I have often wondered where my idea of how I relate to a text emerged. I have vaguely spoken to people of the claim texts have on me. . .at least certain texts. I  say that I want to understand texts (to stand-under them), to encounter them, to endure them, to dwell with them. This last verb betrays my affinity for Heidegger.

 I tell my students that you should look for elements of the text you don't understand. Such moments then urge us to understand. I tell my teachers that there are very few texts nowadays that I feel are true encounters or events-- that is, texts that burst my previously held beliefs and thoughts. That is, texts that offer me more than just a series of academic positions in an assertive mode (to use Heideggerian language),but instead fundamentally alter my consciousness, to skew my schemas as if I had taken an experimental drug. I look for texts that present me with a new style of thought, a new rhetoric, a new poetics--not just new terminology or, even worse, "applied" terminology. 

I'm beginning to believe that my specific attitude toward texts emerged from Heidegger's student, Hans Georg-Gadamer, and his seminal text, Truth and Method. In "Tragedy of Hermeneutical Experience," scholar Gerald Bruns writes that a common theme in the history of interpretation,  
"is that the understanding of a text always requires, in some sense, a conversion to the text's way of thinking, and what this means is that we always end up having to reinterpret ourselves, and even change ourselves, in the light of the text. To understand a text is not only to grasp its meaning; it is to understand the claim it has on us. Most often this claim is critical in the strong sense, as when a text exposes to us our own prejudices, by which Gadamer means not only our private, subjective dispositions but, more important, the conceptual frameworks we inhabit and to which we appeal when we try to make sense of things. More is at stake in interpretation than interpretation. What would it be for a text to explode the conceptual world of the one seeks to interpret it?" ("Tragedy" 77). 

The texts that most often achieve this task for me are works of poetry, some literature, and, most importantly, continental philosophy and theory . I have often spoken to my friends of the fundamental alteration to my mode of thinking by the text of Lacan, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, and Serres. It is their style of thought and, sometimes, writing, that I strive to inhabit. 

And yet, it is precisely these thinkers who do not advocate hermeneutical sense of "meaning" but rather the generation of endless texts (or other experiments in response) to be read and re-read, written and re-written. But I subject myself to these texts, which have a claim on me, and try to then ask what they are asking me to do-- not with them or to them but to myself

Because these texts are so transformative, at times, I believe that I elevate them to a sacred level, believing that it is difficult for me, a lowly mortal, to touch the writing of powerful and knowledgeable divinities. But these writers are more often than not thinkers of non-knowledge (especially Lacan). In some ways, they say--don't believe you can "understand" --just create. The idea that I can do what they are doing never crosses my mind in the same way that I have always felt like I'm just "not a creative writer" --I don't write fiction or poetry. I am a mere critic, an interpreter, a humble servant to the multivalent meanings of other texts. These texts can change me, but the texts I write can only be second-hand commentaries, my words functioning merely as an implicit injunction to others: go read these great texts. 

On the one hand, this hermeneutical orientation has allowed me to be extremely receptive to difficult work and given me an extraordinary ability to navigate various possibilities of meanings in a text. Furthermore, it has allowed me to understand various ways that others make meaning and interpret. It allows me to open myself up to the other in a way that goes beyond a kind of neo-liberal openness of tolerance. 

However, it has made it extremely difficult to write my own texts. It has made it extremely difficult for me to believe that I can create texts that have this opening effect on others. One reason for this is that, in general, many academic texts do not question our own standing as subjects, but prefer to thematize the issues, endlessly pointing toward ways we can apply the insights of great philosophers to our disciplines. The philosophers are only there to provide us a way to speak of our "subject" and not us, as reader-writer-subjects (if you'll excuse the lazy designation). It is always about what text so and so enables us to do as a scholar within the community of scholars rather than transformation of ourselves. 

But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. If what i say is true, then it seems like I am advocating the position of Rorty, where the difficult texts of these thinkers --private ironists -- can serve us only as individual readers rather than map new possibilities for a collective politics of well-being. 

The problem lies, I think, in hermeneutics as an orientation toward understanding rather than an orientation toward invention. It appeals, like some other appropriations of phenomenological principles, to a kind of individual ethics of a constant undermining of our own knowledge positions when given new possibilities. Now, this ethical orientation, as I said above, has served me well as a human being in my relationships. Perhaps it was never the literature, poetry, or philosophy per se that was opening my horizons, but my openness to these texts and my willingness to change.

We can see that a certain strain of philosophical hermeneutics forces us to acknowledge the otherness of the Other, to expose ourselves to the other and recognize that that person (or that text) has a claim on us just as much as we can make claims about it -- but that every claim we make (assertions) will never capture the irreducible singularity of the text.

But what do we then do with this exposure?

Well, we strive to interpret it according to the complex intersection of our own time and being as well as when the text was made. However, I'd like to suggest that despite this method eventually producing a text, the interpretation of the text then becomes a kind of residue of the encounter of understanding. My dear friend and former professor once told me that an interpretation of a text tells us more about the interpreter than the text itself.  I agree. The text is a record of what Gadamer might call "hermeneutical experience," an encounter which can never be reduced to what is written about it, as the person is transformed through the encounter with a text. Bruns, commenting on Gadamer's interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis, writes "tragic knowledge is closer to what Cavell calls acknowledgement and what Gadamer calls hermeneutical experience than it is to what we normally think of as knowledge, namely, knowledge as conceptual representation" ("Tragedy" 82). The problem with this is that this notion of hermeneutical experience believes that you can remove the veil of a false consciousness to see reality -- rather than, as Nietzsche says, that truth cannot be separated from its garment. The idea is that truth of the situation, of the world, of reality can be revealed, if only in a negative movement: "It is emancipation from false consciousness achieved not by methodological application or analysis but by hermeneutical experience, that is, by the encounter with the otherness of reality, or with that which refuses to be contained within--kept at bay by--our conceptual operations and results" (82).

Bruns' tragic hermeneutic anti-philosophy is criticized by Charles Altieri in his essay, "Hermeneutics and Rhetorical Theory." Arguing that Bruns' Levinasian inspired tragic view of philosophy is too abstract to confront reality, Altieri writes, "[f]or the rhetorician, the understanding of tragedy must give way to a tragic understanding of the limits of understanding, for understanding is simultaneously not effective enough to bridge our differences and so effective that it overcomplicates what might be resolved more simply, were we to negotiate without worrying about we think we know" (105). This sounds similar to what Bruns' is advocating, but there is a pragmatic dimension to Altieri's position that suggest that Bruns' thinking leaves no room for agency, especially, I would add, collective agency. I'm sympathetic to this position because in a world where we are all acknowledging the tragedy of the world and doing nothing about it, it is not enough to abstractly 'expose' ourselves in Cavellian "acknowledgement." Indeed, perhaps we need more recognition and identification, not in the sense that we should strive to understanding "the other" in either its abstract quasi-transcendent Levinasian dimension nor in the misguided idea that we can fully understand the experience of a concrete other, but rather explore the dimensions outside of "understanding" in more concrete, rhetorical contexts insofar as we can delimit them. 

Perhaps Rorty is right that insofar as we encounter these texts as private experiences of personal transformation, some of these texts are only of use to us if we take them as "ironists." What if instead of the  tragic view of hermeneutics (converting to a text's way of thinking in order to show the limits of our self-understanding and, simultaneously, the singularity of particularly powerful texts which make claims on us), we focus on what we can do with a text in a given situation through an articulation of how the text thinks, we have moved into what Greg Ulmer calls heuretics. Heuretics implies a mode of reading for "instructions" --what is the text telling us to do?

Heuretics contrasts with hermeneutics in that, although it does not discount the "past," in fact, the past is a choral (in the sense of Plato's chora) resource from which to invent rather than a context from which to interpret. For heuretics, we choose several texts that seem like they can be useful for inventing in the present toward a particular problem (or "target"); we can detect here Deleuze and Guattari's claim that philosophical concepts always address particular problems--the same can be said of a text. The point of heuretics is that we are not trying to understand the text as a whole -- we take for granted that the text exceeds any use we might make of it, but this is good. Ulmer has articulated a "machine" (if you will) for invention called the CATTt. The texts are inserted into each of these slots and it is the slot which determines (although, of course, its not like you choose which texts go into which slot willy-nilly) how the text functions within your work. We are not seeking the "truth" of the text in hermeneutical fashion, but what Lacan calls the "truth of the subject," the subject being something which emerges rather than a pre-constituted text or author.


We must also note that the process of using the CATTt and any heuretic method is an experiment. In Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, Ulmer claims that inventive texts have a "CATTt" at their basis, from Augustine to Descartes to Derrida. Discovering the CATTt can help generate a poetics but the CATTt is a heuristic device -- the individual writer/composer must make many decisions about what to keep and what to throw out. The difficulty of heuretics is finding to what extent do you use your text as a "contrast"?

We can read Ulmer's project provisionally as a way to begin to invent and construct figures of wisdom which will help us make decisions, since the time of jurisprudence (a major element in Gadamer's hermeneutics) and careful application of law is useless under the dromosphere (as Virilio calls it). We have deconstructed the hell out of all our values -- now where is the Nietzschean transvaluation?

For Ulmer, rather than a tragic, Bruns-like, ethics of the radical other, we need to look at the aesthetic dimension of experience -- neither rareified reflections on philosophical aesthetics, nor necessarily examples of difficult digital poetry, but the aesthetic within everyday life. His project is inspired by avant-garde art of Marcel Duchamp and the Modernist poetry of Stevens, Pound, Eliot, Stein, etc. In an electrate world characterized by advertisement and the Entertainment institution, the skill needed will not be to interpret, but to invent, create, and produce media that will show us how we as a collective can strive for well-being. For Ulmer, we need to recognize ourselves in the world because are, as Lacan claims, in an extimate relation with it: the outside is the inside and the inside is the outside. We must "take the side of the object"(as Baudrillard puts it in Fatal Strategies) not to revel in its inexhaustibility, apart  and alien from anything we might impose on it (see Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology), but to find how these objects correspond with the truth of the subject in the objet @ (as Ulmer writes it), the 'fetish.' We are not interested in objects "in and of themselves," but as they signify and found our myths and values in our society. This discovery will happen not through critique nor through speculation on substance, but through attention to individual and collective desire as it manifests in the world. 


  1. I also recently made the connection between hermeneutics and heuretics in a blog post about translation, if case you're interested:

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