← Philament 4: Untitled


Alison O’Harae

To take the generic type ‘revival review’ in an issue with the simultaneously pregnant and yet vacuous theme, ‘Untitled,’ grants a remarkable degree of freedom. I would like to resurrect the religious and restorative connotations implicit in the term ‘revival’ and recommend two books which draw deeply upon the suppressed heritage of biblical and theological criticism that lies behind and still shapes much of the agenda of literary studies. The first is Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s engagement with Derrida et al, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. This deliberate pun on Stanley Fish’s seminal work Is There a Text in This Class? indicates another prominent conversation partner. In a neatly symmetrical argument, with a consciously Trinitarian structure, Vanhoozer first provides a theological critique of the death of author, text and reader, suggesting that the questions posed by literary theory are ultimately theological in nature (an observation supported both by Barthes’ easy slippage from ‘the Author’ to authors, or more recently, Derrida’s preoccupation with ethics). While there have been many critiques of deconstruction, the breadth of reading and theological nature of this attempt render it unique. Even for those who remain unconvinced, the questions the text raises are searching and seriously challenge the fundamental assumptions that underlie deconstruction: for example, the failure to distinguish issues of ontology (what exists) from those of epistemology (how we know) leading to an unnecessary skepticism.

The second part of the argument is motivated by a desire to allow the other to speak. This is also the political imperative that drives and legitimises much post-structural criticism. Intriguingly, Vanhoozer challenges deconstruction at this very point, querying:

… how for the hermeneutic non-realist the other can truly be other, if interpretation is ultimately a matter of one’s self-projection. The task of an ethics of interpretation, I submit, is to guard the otherness of the text: to preserve its ability to say something to and affect the reader, thus creating the possibility of self-transcendence….It is the postmodern suspicion of hermeneutics that threatens to reduce the other (the author) to the selfsame, that is, to oneself. (383-384)

To approach the text as a ‘hermeneutic non-realist’ renders it impossible to be encountered by something other than one’s own reflection, a meaning wrested through pleasurable exercises in creative ingenuity. Vanhoozer draws upon an Augustinian hermeneutics of love and recent developments in speech act theory in an attempt to positively re-construct the author, text and reader, dealing with the genuine critique posed by deconstruction, but without subsiding into solipsistic relativism. The argument is provocative. He suggests that responsible reading (a willingness to listen to the other speak) requires that the reader cultivate hermeneutic virtues in their personal life as well as their critical methodology. Whether or not one is prepared to go the whole way, the book offers a refreshing and potentially liberating avenue out of the prison-house of language. Instead of posing the question: ‘Where to after deconstruction?’, familiar literary questions are brought into dialogue with the theological tradition from which they initially emerged, [1] raising the possibility of exploring this heritage in order to forge constructive solutions. It is not all intellectually sombre, studded with delightful quotations such as: ‘Kant is not a terminal disease. It is possible to get over him.’ (300)

The other more recent (and much shorter) book which draws on biblical and theological criticism is by Alan Jacobs. Theology of Reading: A Hermeneutics of Love furthers the positive dimension of this project of ‘re-theologising’ reading, relating, and literary criticism. Like Vanhoozer, Jacobs attempts to articulate a hermeneutic of reading that engages the critic holistically as a person, taking seriously Augustine’s suggestion that the primary virtue essential to reading, writing and interpreting is love. Quite aware that such an enterprise seems both absurd and inescapably soft-headed in the current academy, Jacobs nevertheless makes a searching and persuasive case for the need to find an alternative to the Nietzschean struggle for power that acts as the underlying paradigm for much cultural criticism. His analysis is eminently readable, deeply digested, and repays serious consideration, proceeding eloquently and unpredictably by way of Jane Austen, Aristotle, Bakhtin, Martha Nussbaum, Emmanuel Levinas, Adrienne Rich, Buffalo Bill and Charles Dickens, amongst a host of other colourful characters. In the process, Jacobs unpacks tensions that lie at the heart of political and ethical schools of criticism in cultural studies, from a unique theological angle. These include the relationship between unselfishness and love, or in other terms between the entanglements of self-consciousness and genuine engagement with the other (person or text); why justice (once defined as a universal that regulated the practice of governments) has replaced love (previously a personal virtue that rendered each individual accountable to their neighbour) as the central ethic; and the implications which the transition has had upon postcolonial and other critical discourses.

Jacobs returns to the classical Aristotelian roots of literary studies, illustrating the need for a sharper, more finely-tuned critical vocabulary by exploring the alternative models offered by philia (bonds of close friendship, familial love) and agape (unconditional love, divinely inspired love for God). Similarly, he distinguishes between suspicion (in the Nietzschean sense of the term) and discernment (as used in biblical literature). The hierarchal nature of aristocratic friendship and suspicion are inextricably related, Jacobs argues. Both Derrida and Nietzsche agree that a gift is not a gift if it incurs obligation, establishes a degree of dependence, or involves true reciprocity; a necessary corollary of the classical notion of self-sufficiency. Jacobs counters this with the injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ explicated through an application of Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism and the necessarily inter-relational nature of human being:

Discernment is required to know what kind of gift one is being presented with, and in what spirit to accept it (if at all), but a universal suspicion of gifts and givers, like an indiscriminate acceptance of all gifts, constitutes an abdication of discernment in favour of a simplistic a priorism that smothers the spirit. (77)

Again, the interpretation is confronting and controversial, as the ethical and philosophical concerns that implicitly or explicitly dominate cultural studies are reconfigured within broader historical and theological contexts. For those who desire a new perspective on all-too-familiar conundrums, I can do no better than echo the voice that ultimately led Augustine from classical rhetoric to biblical hermeneutics, and a whole lot more: Tele lege, take and read!

Alison O’Harae is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. She is currently researching biblical perspectives on the imagination, exploring more broadly intersections between literature and theology.

[1] See David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) for an eloquently argued substantiation of this claim.