Bloggernacle conversations over the past few months (especially those on women and temple covenants) have got me thinking about issues of textual interpretation. So, I decided to do a series of posts thinking about how we interpret spiritual/religious texts and whether or not there’s anything we can learn from people in the academy whose job it is to interpret texts (i.e. literary theorists). Here’s attempt #1.
In the old days, textual meaning was located in one of a couple of places. The first place it could be located was with the author of the text. People spent time trying to study and determine what the author “really intended,” and authorial intent was celebrated as the ultimate meaning of the text. The second place it could be located was in the text itself. New Criticism argued that each text has one unified meaning and that we should read the text closely to figure out that meaning. (Remember all those fun English classes where the teachers made you do “close readings”? You can thank the New Critics for that.)
When the structuralists came along in the middle of the twentieth century, they turned everything upside-down. Structuralism engendered a radical reconceptualization of the text; no more locating meaning with an author-figure or with a unified text. Instead, all texts were part of larger structures of meaning. The structuralists argued that all texts used linguistic and cultural codes as their methods of conveying meaning. These linguistic and cultural codes could be found in all texts, and it was these codes/structures that gave texts meaning.
Because of structuralism, “intertextuality” (or links between different texts)Â begins to be important because if all texts are part of larger codes or structures of meaning, then it follows that all texts are connected. The structures of meaning in one text may resemble or contradict the structures of meaning in another, and we can better understand these texts by looking at them together. Structuralism also emphasized the role of the reader in meaning-finding. The reader was important because she is the one who understands and deciphers the codes in each text.
Deconstruction and other post-structuralist theories pushed the moves made by structuralism even further. For example, deconstruction’s intertextuality was not about figuring out how texts were linked by different structural codes. Instead, it was a way of pointing at the inherent instability of meaning. In deconstruction’s intertextuality, you move from one text to the next to the next along a chain of associated meanings. There is no stopping place in this chain of intertextual referencing–you are always on shifting ground, and the meaning is never stable. If you reference one text, you are referencing them all, because each text can be linked to all others infinitely; no structure, text, or meaning has ultimate authority.
Deconstruction is primarily concerned with pointing out how there is no authoritative, certain meaning–we can only access meaning through language, and all language is transitory and contradictory. Deconstruction opposes the philosophical idea of essentialism (read the first quote by Diana Fuss), and instead, posits that how we access the nature and meaning of things is through language and culturally-mediated experiences. While structuralism examined the role of culture, deconstruction took it one step further because it destabilized the cultural codes that were seen as the meaning-makers in structuralism. Deconstructionists showed that these codes/structures were not as clear or straightforward as the structuralists believed.
So, in summary,structuralism and deconstruction are important because they emphasized the importance of intertextuality, the influence of culture on language, and the importance of the reader in determining meaning. Furthermore, they highlighted how language follows specific structures and patterns, but that those patterns are often more arbitrary and confusing than is commonly accepted.
So, what does this mean for meaning and interpretation in church contexts? First, when you add religion and God to the practices of meaning-making and interpretation, the equation changes. “Logocentrism,” the term Derrida uses to critique the belief that meaning has one central source, is important and even celebrated in the church. The “word” is God. We are to determine His meaning, interpret scriptures using His guidelines and spirit. To a large extent, the “meaning” of the text is God and His will. Of course, the problem with this is that as mortals, we are unable to fully understand and comprehend God’s meanings. Our texts are imperfect manifestations, written according to our understanding, and it becomes very difficult when faced with a variety of texts and conflicting messages to figure out the intentionality of God, especially since he wasn’t the direct author of all of our scriptural and ritual texts.
So, on one level there is an inherent tension between religious readings of texts and structuralist and post-structuralist readings. The question for me is to what extent can we embrace the arguments of the literary theorists that language is culturally-informed and unstable? How do we acknowledge this (which, in my mind, is an important acknowledgment) while still accepting the transcendence and centrality of God and His role in meaning-making?
The literary theories I’ve discussed above also introduce additional ideas that are important to consider (these are questions I’ll be returning to in the upcoming posts in this series): How should we think about intertextuality? Do certain texts have priority when thinking about performing intertextual analyses? If so, how should we use them? And how do we avoid the intertextual associations of non-LDS (or non-canonical) texts? Do we want to avoid these associations? How much influence does culture have on scriptural texts, and how does this affect our influence our belief in a text’s scriptural nature or divine origin? What is the place and role of the reader when interpreting scriptural texts? Is the reader the central figure for determining meaning (as posited by structuralism)? If so, how does that position of meaning-making function? What kind of readers are ideal readers (if there is such a thing)? And how should these readers go about interpreting texts?