All of my first week’s lectures in the MAPH program were over Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. As I mentioned in this post, I feel that Freud is a tragic intellectual hero–a man who managed to invent psychoanalysis, popularize the dominant theory of the mind, and still manages to influence quite a bit of popular culture’s conception of sexuality. Yet, Freud is also a joke. His theories of sexual development seem almost Puritan in their pro-reproductive, heterosexual zeal and his views on children’s sexuality are often considered misguided at best and downright pedophillic at worst. After actually reading through Freud’s own words–at length and carefully–I can both understand how people can justifiably discard his writings on the aforementioned grounds and argue that Freud remains a misunderstood genius.
Thanks for checking out this, my third post, valiantly attempting to quantify just what a good undergraduate education should prepare one to do in grad school. Having addressed the importance of reading for understanding and experiencing for intention, this article will briefly delineate a vision of good reading posture. No, I’m not going to tell you that the nuns where right all along and you need to sit up straight! By reading posture I mean the mental attitude that one adopts as he or she approaches a text. Specifically, my concern is two mutually exclusive but complementary postures necessary for advanced academic work.
Generous readings are those that approach the text expecting to find rational, significant, and internally cohesive arguments. Stated as simply as possible, generous readings assume that a classic book, movie, opera, painting, or building is classic because it really does have something to say to them. So to return to Freud, a generous reading of the Three Essays begins by humbly allowing that Freud is not a hack, fraud, imposter, pretender, hopelessly irrelevant, or a pedophile–among other things. People have labored long and hard over his works because there was something in them worth unpacking. So an interpretation of Freud that defines his terms and understands his points in such a way that they are rationally incompatible, mutually contradictory, or just obviously flawed is failing to give Freud his due. If his works really had such obviously faulty premises and logic that on a first reading they stick out like a sore thumb they would not have facilitated the creation of a new discipline. In less extreme cases, a reader’s understanding of terms must be open to revision so as to allow internal cohesion–or if it doesn’t make sense, your probably not interpreting it correctly. This kind of reading is nowhere more necessary–and more often ignored–than in the case of the visual arts. Only a few days ago I heard a Jackson Pollock painting referred to as “the product of a particularly bad case of diarrhea.” Now, come on–is it really reasonable to think that somehow modern artists have perpetrated such a con job on all other artists, gallery owners, museum curators, art historians, and the academy in general that they have managed to pass off canvases, sculptures, films, and buildings that had nothing to contribute to the world for better than eighty years?
Generous readings show a certain amount of respect for creator as a member of his or her guild, the work as a contribution to its discipline, and the knowledge and wisdom of the past. They can be grueling to construct because they demand a thorough understanding of the text, its contributions, and the conversation to which it belongs. However, only a generous reading actually attempts to understand what a creator was trying to communicate.
On the other hand, a hermeneutic of suspicion (HoS) is an interpretive posture that asks probing questions of the authority of the text, its value to the contemporary conversion, and the traditional ways that it has been understood–especially in regard to hierarchical, patriarchal, and colonial models of interpretation. This is the point where I will likely run afoul of proponents of both the ways that a hermeneutics of suspicion has traditionally been employed. Much of Post Modern thought has used a HoS as a starting point to deconstruct the traditional ways that Modernism had read and utilized texts. By beginning with a HoS they assume the creator of a work could not overcome the limitations of their era and created in ways that reinforced privilege and power. Therefore, the interpretive work left to us is to strip aside those conventions and re-examine the text highlighting its internal conflicts, shortcomings, and fragmented nature. From the other extreme, others have argued that the HoS is not an interpretive tool at all as it imposes a contemporary view–often in direct contradiction to the stated goals of the creator–onto a work while doing nothing positive to understand it. (Yes, I know–there are many, many shades of nuance to be worked out between these two camps. However, for the sake of brevity and clarity I’ll let these caricatures stand).
In contrast to the extremes, I would suggest that a HoS is a useful second step following a generous reading. By questioning the limitations of the authority of the text, considering the distance between the contemporary conversation and the conversation into which it originally spoke, and how the presuppositions that the text is founded upon differ from ours it becomes possible to correct and amend a text even as we seek to hear it out. So, there you have it. Grad school requires the ability to both hear a text clearly with a generous reading and the ability to confront a text when it is necessary to do so. Feel free to ask questions, yell at me, or ignore me completely in the comments section below. Next time we will consider the importance of Facts and Conversations.