Volume 31, 1998
Philosophy of Interpretation
Reading ‘Jabberwocky’ Rightfully
Meaning, Understanding, and the Politics of Interpretation
In his essay "The Politics of Interpretation: Spinoza's Modernist Turn," Berel Lang attributes to Spinoza the view that interpretation presupposes or implies a political framework-in effect, that interpretation is itself a politics. The thrust of Spinoza's argument is against "interpretation from authority," i.e., against the view that the meaning of a text can be determined by an external authority. Understanding cannot be coerced, according to Spinoza. In my paper I attempt to make the relationship between reader and text even more direct and "free" than it is in Spinoza. I argue that any approach (such as Derrida's) which posits an interpretation between reader and text places constraints on the notion of a democracy of free readers. I argue that in a truly literate democracy readers have the right to claim that they have understood or grasped their texts without having any kind of intermediary placed between themselves and their texts, regardless of whether this intermediary takes the form of an external authority (in Spinoza's sense) or an interpretation (in Derrida's sense). In the course of the paper I draw upon Michael Dummett's philosophy of language in order to critique the "humpty-dymptyism" of the interpretationist school. I place myself firmly on the side of Alice in Through the Looking Glass, and spend some time discussing the significance of the difficulties which she experiences with the nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky."