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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 21, 2020

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On Interpretation

On Interpretation
Harry Desmond

Prompted by Amir’s opening comments on Friday, as well as our discussion of photography and the fiction/non-fiction dichotomy in Didion’s book, I’ve been thinking about the role of interpretation in poetic thinking, and in particular the question of when or if we can avoid it. Both photography and flat “factual” writing appear to offer the possibility of direct access to the things themselves, an unmediated portrayal of the world as it really is, an immediate communication of pure information. Were this one’s goal, one would strive to eliminate interpretation and the “subjective” elements that accompany it — figurative language, the role of the speaker or photographer, the relevance of the framing of the photo, etc. This type of direct and truthful portrayal of things has been a dream of humanity since at least the time of Plato (think of his and Socrates’ dispute with the sophists), and perhaps fully took hold of our collective imagination during the Enlightenment and the rise of institutionalised science. It’s also at least a consideration in journalism as well as most philosophical and historical writing. The trouble of course is that this complete abolition of the subject is simply not possible. We cannot capture in writing or images a reality entirely independent of that writing or those images: our involvement with and expression of things at least transposes them onto another plane, and at most virtually creates them ex nihilo. We cannot write things, we can only write words, and words are human constructs immediately and irrevocably enmeshed in complex and contingent systems of human valuation. I return again and again to an incredible passage in Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no longer turned towards the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of onto-theology — in other words, throughout his entire history — has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and end of the game.

Might we think of poetic thinking as that which fully accepts — indeed revels in — the necessity of interpretation? That lives this necessity, as it were, authentically rather than in exile? The attempt to write “a truth or an origin which escapes play” is forlorn by virtue of the very nature of the means we have of expressing ourselves…— but the possibilities of interpretation are endless.

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