But even at its worst the stresses of this work have never assumed the more looming stormcloud distress that dissertating had become in those last few months, and so even at its worst I've felt pretty cheerful about the way things are shaping up these days. The worst thing I've had to deal with this last month was actually a devastating flu I caught and couldn't shake for two weeks early February, and then a second terrible cold that hit me just a little a couple weeks after I finally recovered from the last one. I'm still struggling with the blasted thing today! I think work stress and communiting to teach on two separate bus lines and on the BART train have made me especially susceptible to catching bugs.
Anyway, some of you have asked for more of a glimpse into what I teach, and the mid-term Exam for my "Rhetoric of Interpretation" course at Berkeley provides a nice window on some of the more general theoretical teaching I do. I've snipped some of the mechanics of the exam and offer up here the more interesting bits:
The Mid-Term is more than an Examination. It is a moment for us to pause and catch our breath and to take stock of where our conversation has been so far and where it is going next. You are receiving these questions a week in advance because the process of reading and thinking about the questions and how best to respond to them provides you with an occasion to contemplate in a deep and sustained way the themes and problems of our course to this point.
The subject of our course in the most general sense is interpretation. Interpretation is a term that describes a careful reading of texts. It describes reading as an effort of explicating, of expounding, of explaining, of elucidating texts. Through interpretation we “make sense” of texts that seem difficult, opaque, mysterious, or even deceptive. We learned that the word “interpretation” derives from the Latin interpretatio, which means to expound or to explain, and also means to translate a text from one language or set of terms into another. We discussed how in classical rhetoric interpretatio named the method of clarifying the meaning of an unfamiliar word or text through the use of synonyms that are more familiar. The word interpretatio itself derived from interpres, which meant “interpreter,” but also “intermediary,” or “go-between.” Early on in the course we discussed at length what this idea of a “go-between” at the heart of interpretation might tell us about the subject of our course.
In the first place, I proposed that the interpres could be thought of as a kind of key that is employed to help decipher a difficult text. This way of conceiving the interpres might lead us to any number of schools or flavors of interpretation, each with its own special key, its own characteristic critical methodologies or vocabularies to illuminate particular dimensions of texts. We have already glimpsed a few of these methodologies, especially Marxist (or postmarxist) and psychoanalytic modes of interpretation. In the remaining weeks of the course we will delve into a number of other methodologies and critical vocabularies as well.
But another, importantly related, way to think of the interpres is as a special kind of authority, a figure who is especially empowered though her mastery of an interpretative methodology, a person who is publicly recognized (or who seeks such recognition) as one who offers up authoritative interpretations that compel the attention or conviction of others. So far, we have discussed this aspect of interpretation primarily by highlighting the ways in which some of our authors have struggled to appear scientific in their readings and recommendations.
When Marx or Freud insist on the scientificity of their own interpretative projects one of the things they are doing is shoring up their claims to be a certain kind of subject or authority, so as to support their recommendations with what they take to be the authority of science. In a similar way, as I struggle to illuminate aspects of these texts for you in our lectures one of the things I am always doing is shoring up my own position as “instructor” in an intelligible scene of pedagogy in which you are my “students,” while at the same time I am a kind of collaborator making sense of difficult texts in an intelligible scene of conversation in which you are my interlocutors.
In thinking through these aspects of the interpres we grapple repeatedly with the notions of the subject and of the object. In works we have read already in the course, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud offer up interpretations of their own lives or the lives of others. Their interpretations take as their objects themselves, or others, or even society “as a whole,” all conceived as texts that solicit careful readings. In the works to which we will turn our attention in the second half of the course, we will focus more and more on texts that take as their object the human subject itself, and the interpretive processes through which some people more than others are empowered to represent and enjoy proper “human” subjecthood.
This shift from texts that take culture or society as their object of interpretation to texts that take subjecthood or “the human” as their object of interpretation already took place for us in a way. It happened in an important sense while we were reading Althusser’s essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” as we tried to make sense of his own shift from an analysis of a repressive capitalist society to an analysis of the ways in which power in society confers on individuals the status of intelligible subjects.
In Marx’s tenth Thesis on Feuerbach, he writes: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” I have proposed in this course that this sentiment represents an inaugural moment for critical theory as a post-philosophical enterprise. By “post-philosophical” I always mean both an enterprise that resists what it perceives as failures in traditional philosophy (in a particular construal of philosophy), but also an enterprise that arises out of philosophy, and hence retains many of its features, questions, and problems.
While Marx seems here to demand an end to interpretation, we have taken his project to be a kind of interpretation itself, a demand that interpretation take up as its proper task not only a clarification of texts (including human lives and societies as kinds of texts) but a provocation to intervene in these texts to change the world and ourselves.
“From the nineteenth century on, beginning with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche the sign is going to become malevolent,” writes Michel Foucault. “There is in the sign an ambiguous quality and a slight suspicion of ill will and ‘malice.’” Consider the imagery of inversion, reversal, and distrust that characterizes the projects of these three threshold figures for contemporary critical theory, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. “[I]n all ideology,” write Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, “men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura[.]” Freud writes (not in the text by him assigned for our course) that psychoanalysis “prove[s] to the ego that it is not even master of its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in his mind,” an insight Freud compares to Copernicus’s insistence that the earth is not the center of the Universe. Nietzsche describes the method of affirmation he delineates in Ecce Homo and Twilight of the Idols and the other books he wrote in the brilliant brief burst of creative activity before his madness all as part of a vast project he considered a “Revaluation of All Values.” Choose one of these figures, Nietzsche, Marx, or Freud, and explain in your own words how, in the pieces of theirs we read in class, they are offering up projects of interpretation that express a deeply ironic sense of the way we conventionally understand the world. Recall that we discussed irony in class as one of four “Master Tropes,” and concluded that irony is a form of substitution or association defined by opposition, inversion, or reversal. Now compare or contrast the project of the figure you have chosen with the project of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, in which he claims “to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.”
How might one make a sensible case that despite what appears to be a rampant and relentless megalomania in his Ecce Homo, Nietzsche is actually rather modest in the claims he makes in the book? What insight might this modesty provide us as we try to determine what Nietzsche’s ambitions are for the interpretive method of “affirmation” he offers up in Ecce Homo?
In his 1888 Preface to The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels attributes to Marx a “proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology[.]” This proposition is as follows:
[I]n every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiters and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.
Several times in class I have offered you a version of this rather long and complex formulation that divides it into three separate propositions. Describe in your own words the three propositions that characterize Marx’s unique contribution to the interpretation of history on this viewpoint. Now describe the status of these three propositions in the work we have read by either Barthes or Althusser and how any change in their status for these writers might have an impact on their own interpretive projects as Marxist or postmarxist critical theorists.
In his essay “Psychological Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” Freud offers up an interpretation of the autobiography of Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber. Near the conclusion of his reading of Schreber’s book, and, presumably of Schreber himself, Freud makes the last of a series of curious claims on a similar theme: “It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.” How and why does the figure of Schreber seem to pose such a challenge to Freud’s larger effort to portray the project of psychoanalytic interpretation as a scientific practice? Are there other places in the text in which Freud seems to play out this ambivalence to Schreber’s own interpretation of the world and of his own place in it? Why might this matter so much Freud in the first place?
In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser claims that for Marx “ideology is the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” The use of the word “dominate” in this formulation is key, since Althusser is discussing the role of the state in Marxist works and whether or not the state is always and only treated as essentially repressive in its nature in those works. Although he is always careful to insist that he is only spelling out implications already contained within Marx’s own theories, Althusser does indeed seem to distance himself in several places from orthodox interpretations of the nature and role of the state in Marx. Describe in your own words some of the key ways in which Althusser’s account of the state might differ from Marx’s. And then describe some of the ways in which these differences impact or facilitate Althusser’s own account of the work ideology does.
In the Preface to the 1970 edition of his Mythologies Roland Barthes describes his ambition for the book was to “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.” In the extended theoretical essay “Myth Today,” with which the volume closes, Barthes spells out this transformation in greater detail. In a key section of that culminating essay, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech,” Barthes writes:
[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… [M]yth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society… [:] What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]
In the series of shorter essaylets that make up the bulk of the volume, Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, events, attitudes, typical gestures, and such. In each essay what he exposes is the way in which what is a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which might therefore be open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has come to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so forth. But although each essaylet testifies in its own way to the ideological accomplishment of naturalization, the fact is that the force of “nature” for each of the objects of his interpretations is a bit different in the specific work it seems to do, and in the specific forms it seems to take. Pick two of the objects Barthes interprets in his shorter essays. First, show how these essaylets both illustrate the more general thesis that myth is naturalization, and then point to some significant differences in the way “the natural” seems to function more specifically in each of your chosen examples.