Saturday, February 7, 2009

Reflections: Just the Facts, M'am...?

The world has been too much with me these past few days, but one thing I have managed to accomplish in the midst of the chaos is finishing my reading of critic Frank Kermode’s fine little book, The Genesis of Secrecy. Kermode’s topic is the interpretation of texts. His method is to compare biblical exegesis to the critical consideration of fictional and historical texts. His thesis (if I am interpreting him correctly!) is that we can never (and should never) come away from any text (biblical or otherwise) with naught but alleged facts in hand. What we can hope to gain from our careful examination of the structure of a text, or from our painstaking deconstruction of it, is—meaning.

This is an important idea to mull over for types who like to parachute into a blogger’s comment box equipped with what they claim to be x-ray goggles that render the post wholly transparent to their particular interpretation. These ideas are also important to persons troubled by the contradictions between historical accounts—such as the genealogies of Jesus—in the Gospels. The tortured efforts of the orthodox to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled merely detract from the credibility of orthodoxy in general. It is truth as MEANING, not truth as FACT that will set us free.

I have recently been engaged in two discussions (not to say arguments) centered on interpretation. The first I have previously posted on here. Since that thread seems to have snapped, I won’t go into it further. The second, which has been happening in the thread following this post at Journeys in Alterity involves interpreting the core message of conservative thinker, Russell Kirk.

In the excerpt that follows, where Kermode is quoting, he’s quoting Roland Barthes on the opacity of historical “fact.”:

[N]o narrative can be transparent on historical fact. …Historical discourse is…guaranteed by metatextual announcements, references to sources and authorities, assurances of the credibility of witnesses… In general, history-writing, even more than fiction, relies on third-person narration. Novels quite often have first-person narrators, but their presence in an historical account gives it a different generic feel—it becomes a memoir. The advantage of third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an illusion, the effect of a rhetorical device. We cannot escape the conclusion that “the fact can exist only linguistically, as a term in a discourse,” although “we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something or other on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural ‘reality’.”

This concept—of fact as the result of a rhetorical device—it would seem to me, applies equally to any form of narrative, be it a novel, a work of history, an op-ed piece, journalistic reportage, a Gospel parable, or a blog post.

On the next page, Kermode goes on to say,

Gallie observes that following a story is a “teleologically guided form of attention.” And as many others have argued, to make arrangements for such guidance is to have some ulterior motive, whether it is aesthetic, epistemological, or ethical (which includes “ideological”). These are Morton White’s categories of metahistorical control or motive; others have more complex schemes. According to William James, “the preferences of sentient creatures are what create the importance of topics”; and Nietzsche, in “The Use and Abuse of History,” declared that “for a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” All this we know, even if we behave as if we did not. The historical narrative comes to us heavily censored (as the account of a dream is censored) but also heavily interpreted (as that same account is affected by the dogmatic presuppositions of the analyst, which are, as Habermas says, “translated into the narrative interpretation.” The historian cannot write, nor can we read, without prejudice. I hope we have seen that this is true of the gospel narratives. [emphasis added]

Facts, regardless of the authority behind their provenance, are merely loose beads, rolling around at random in a box labeled “context.” Meaning is the string that allows us to thread them into the coherency that is a necklace.