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The Interdisciplinary Challenges Of Interpretation

The determinant importance of the social and cultural context that runs from hermeneutics to classic social theory, and certainly from Dilthey to Mannheim, and which shapes as well the way we understand values and meanings held by social actors and the social and cultural texts they produce, continues as part of the formidable framework even within twenty-first century theories of interpretation. This is especially true for the historical importance granted to the context in which cultural texts emerge and are read, appropriated, used, and interpreted and to the limitations such a context imposes. Yet new issues and tensions within interpretive theories have taken hold. They may not represent a serious rupture in relation to earlier paradigms, however, or a revolutionary upheaval in intellect, but may merely be a difference in analytical emphasis.

The work of Michel Foucault (1926–1984), whose intellectual profile cuts across the social sciences and the humanities, had a major impact on interpretation. In a move as profound as Marx's positing of the concept of mode of production, Foucault insisted that what is at play in the realm of history and human affairs is the construction of discursive regimes that govern every enterprise of knowledge making. In this regard, knowledge and power remain inextricably coupled and constitute the most productive dimensions of human activity. Foucault questioned the very modern category of knowledge and the assumption that knowledge is the product of neutral tools of investigation. According to him, the production of all knowledge is carried out in the constitutive effectivity of the discursive forms that make the knowledge enterprise possible. Thus there is no escape from the forms and modes of discourse; they condition and shape what becomes knowledge. In this regard, Foucault's views undermine the notion that rationality has a universal, transcendental, and foundational status allowing it to claim the transcendental privilege of ascertaining truth. Because of the conditions of discourse, the idea of Truth as a reality to be grasped "out there" through the deployment of the discursive schemas of language must give way to the study of what discourse actually produces—"truth effects." This antifoundational approach conditions every act of interpretation, casting it into the position of a continual reflection on its very capacity to frame the problem of meaning. The task set by Foucault is to comprehend the idea of truth and the constructive effects such an idea has on the forms and organizations of social and historical life. He argued that epistemology must be replaced by a genealogy of knowledge forms. Like Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, the study of discursive forms can yield an understanding of what Foucault called epistemes (Mannheim used the term Weltanschauung, or "worldview")—a horizon of historicity that represents the cumulative frameworks of knowledge production but is also open to historical ruptures and the ensuing transformations. Likewise, Foucault's insistence on discursive forms as the principal arena for social and historical analysis has links to French sociology's emphasis on representations.

Foucault's influence can be seen in the way cultural interpretation has taken on new perspectives and issues. In the early twentieth century, the problem of culture was largely seen as the prerogative of anthropologists. In the twenty-first century, however, every discipline within the social sciences and the humanities takes culture as a major concern. It is worth noting that within anthropology, the very notion of culture as a set of practices that exist "out there" and can be studied objectively by the social scientist has given way somewhat to a more reflexive notion of culture as a peculiarly problematic intellectual construction. Anthropologists are no longer solely interested in studying the culture of others; they also want to study and interpret culture. This additional interest has its roots in Claude Lévi-Strauss's insistence (drawing from Ferdinand de Saussure, who in turn drew from Durkheim) that culture operates like language and should therefore be studied similarly. The so-called linguistic turn was fully evident in the late 1970s in the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–) who, though not influenced by Foucault, nonetheless recast culture primarily as the construction of narratives. The anthropological shift from a concern with a "culture out there" to a preoccupation with the constitutive power of narrative and discursive forms is noteworthy in the work of James Clifford and George Marcus, among others, who emphasize the narrative dimension of writing social science and view cultural interpretation as inextricably tied to the act of inscription. As cultural texts, writings in the social sciences do not so much "discover" the social as construct narratives that in turn condition the social world.

In the wake of Foucault's views, literary theory has converged with social theory around the problem of historical interpretation. This can be seen in the theories affiliated with New Historicism which, in keeping with historicist hermeneutics and the sociology of knowledge, argues that formalist, text-centered approaches to literature need to be replaced by methods that include the social and political circumstances of their production (Greenblatt; Gallagher; Mitchell). In a synthesis of Marx and Foucault, literature is conceptualized not as a distinct category of human production to be studied as an isolated phenomenon but as a historically embedded form. As a situated cultural product, literature can reveal the ideological contours of its conditions of production. A literary work can therefore mean different things to different people who do not share the same context. The shift in the problem of interpretation toward the social conditions that govern cultural appropriation has also influenced the study of the uses of literature and cultural texts. Reader-response theory (Tompkins), theories of interpretive communities (Fish), and reception theory (Holub) do not begin with the presumption that texts have meanings but instead emphasize the social and subjective dimensions of how texts are read and appropriated, an approach that resembles the "uses and gratifications" approach in mass media studies. Texts are thus subordinated to readers and audiences and the social frameworks and dispositions they bring to the act of interpreting cultural texts.

New Historicism is sometimes criticized for conflating history and text and for projecting contemporary issues onto situations from the past. History is not necessarily the cause and source of a literary work; instead, the ties between history and text are reduced to a dialectically recursive problem. The text is interpreted as product and production, end and source of history. In this regard, New Historicism reflects the influence Louis Althusser's structuralist theories of ideological reproduction have had on literary theory and his insistence that all cultural production is "structured in dominance." Contemporary theoretical problems are also sometimes "read back" into a historical context where they may not apply, as when modern social categories are used as analytical devices for interpreting subjects in a quite different historical epoch. Althusserian theories of ideological reproduction can be seen in the important subcultural studies carried out within the field of British cultural studies that emerged in England in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Paul Willis's ethnographic work exemplified the desire to restore a subject-sympathetic analysis of participants in the rich world of subcultures, especially youth subcultures. While this approach privileged the voices and views of his subjects, thus giving the study of a subculture a more human dimension, the subjects of his study—working-class youth—struggle for a sense of self, autonomy, and dignity only to contribute culturally and unwittingly to their own domination.

The attention to subjects is mired in the constraints of history and social location. But subject-centered interpretive theory also has its redemptive impulses. From the 1970s on, much historical work has retrieved the social lives of various groups hitherto ignored by historiography. Some aspects of feminist theories of interpretation exemplify this retrievalist impulse. While the larger horizon of feminist theory, in its analysis of society and history, has mainly addressed the subjugation of women, there are attempts to recast the narrative of perpetual domination by highlighting subjects in ways that emphasize their capacity for critical resistance. This approach to locating and interpreting critical subjectivity moves toward a revisionist feminist epistemology that begins with a situated knower who has situated knowledge that reflects her perspectives (D. Smith). Known as "standpoint theory," this view has similarities to Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, but the conceptual framework shares more with the ideas of the cultural theorist Georg Lukács (1885–1971). It was Lukács who argued that a subject's location in society and history provides a "standpoint" that can give epistemological ground to the critical study of consciousness. As a Marxist, Lukács had a historically privileged subject in mind—the proletariat. In early feminist standpoint theory, the privileged historical category shifted from class to gender, and the problem of a gendered subject's knowledge was itself a gendered historical formation (D. Smith; Harstock). The attempt to establish a single feminist standpoint, however, has given way to postmodern theory's pluralist concerns and the acknowledgment of multiple, epistemologically informative situated standpoints (Harding; Collins; Alarcon; Sandoval).

Twenty-first century theories of interpretation reflect significant cross-disciplinary reflection. Although there is merit in approaching the problem of interpretation from distinct disciplines, it is apparent that the boundaries that divide the disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences, and the divisions that occur between the humanities and the social sciences, are obfuscatory. Interpretation has become the core problem within the study of culture; and culture, in turn, has come to occupy a vast area traversing every discipline within the humanities and the social sciences. For these reasons, the problem of interpretation will quite likely continue to be one of the more formidable, persistent, and challenging issues of intellectual inquiry well into the future.


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Jon Cruz

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismInterpretation - The Hermeneutic And Interpretive Impulse In The Rise Of Social Studies, The Interdisciplinary Challenges Of Interpretation