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Thursday, October 19, 2006

James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"

James K.A. Smith attempts in his essay “Limited Inc/arnation” to engage Derrida and suggests that some of Derrida’s concepts may be useful for a Christian hermeneutic. This, of course, is a very bold move!

Smith states his intentions at the outset:
I will demonstrate (1) that Derrida’s account of the “iterability” of the sign is consistent with the finitude of a good creation, and (2) that Derrida’s account does not jettison the role of authorial intent, but only mitigates the power of the author to “govern” all interpretations. (113)

Smith claims that Derrida has been misread. Rather than claiming that seeking authorial intent is irrelevant, Smith proposes that Derrida (through his notion of “iterability” and “context”) is primarily pointing out the risk involved in communication. Derrida’s notions of “iterability” and “context” ultimately reveal that the text becomes “unhitched” from its original context. (See my more detailed review for more on “iterability” and “context”)

Smith has great respect for Authorship and states at the outset of his essay that this is an issue that must be seriously engaged within the Christian tradition. What Smith does throughout the essay is to situate the determination of authorial intent within the Christian community under the guide of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the hermeneutical question is a community question as much as it is an appeal to the mysterious concept of “authorial intent.”

My primary response to Smith’s essay is to applaud. It is truly important to engage the perspective of Derrida. Regardless of one’s conclusion on the value of Derrida it seems, to me, to be of great value to give him a reading rather than merely fixing a label on him and allowing the issue to drop out of sight and out of mind.

But if we agree with Smith on his more mild construction of Derrida, then what are the real consequences for hermeneutics? In other words, if we alter the “received” Derrida tradition, then what contribution is made with the softer Derrida? What is so impressive?

In answering this question it would seem to me that Derrida’s contribution lies in his emphasis on the unstable nature of communication. Writing and language is risky business, and for Derrida this seems to be the point of emphasis. Perhaps in the past biblical interpretation has been somewhat naïve about interpretation and has tended to view interpretation for its stability rather than its instability: To view language as something more fixed and scientific, rather than viewing it as fluid and artistic. Hence, in this sense Derrida (and others who stand with him in a loose collective of the philosophical hermeneutics tradition) proves to be a corrective.

Additionally, even with this so-called “softer” Derrida, there is still much for Christian interpreters to gripe about. For example, if we “unhitch” the text from authorial intent and situate interpretation in the community, then how do we ever actually recover the authors intent or ever actually fix or find the meaning.

Smith, himself raises this question, but the answer, I think, on a Derridean account is unclear. On Smith’s account there is an appeal to the community and to the Holy Spirit’s work in the community. This is the “fixer” of meaning. However, for those looking for something more “stable” this essay will not suffice. Again, this goes back to the issue of the extent to which we view language as stable or unstable – fixed or fluid. Above all, Smith via Derrida in this essay want to dispel the illusion that “authorial intent” are magic words that fix meaning. Put another way, Smith/Derrida warn against construing fixed formulas that guarantee the stability of language and hence the stability of interpretation. Interpretation is difficult because signs, writing, and language are themselves unstable.

Although being in agreement with this point, I would offer up the fact that “authorial intent” nonetheless must always remain a goal of interpretation, at least in most cases. As I have mentioned before there are certainly texts in which authorial intent may be less important (certain poetic or prophetic texts, perhaps), but authorial intent will always be important, if not critical to biblical interpretation. On this Smith would agree – at least he seems to in his opening paragraphs. So, if “authorial intent” is not a magic formula, it is, at least, a goal and still one of the important staples of interpretation.

Lastly, I think that by insisting that biblical interpretation be situated more in the community we are doing interpretation a great favor. Community determination will, of necessity, take on greater dialogue. And this dialogue, if it is to be truly productive as any dialogue should be, must be both stimulating and generous at the same time. It must be challenging as well as charitable, it must be rigorous while maintaining humility. This type of dialogue will carry with it uncertainties and unrest, but if it is successful it has enormous potential for interpretive stimulation. And, I think, it is this kind of dialogue and stimulation that will move us closer to our stated goals of interpretation, including that of “authorial intent.”

To view a more expanded form of my attempt to discern the authorial intention of Smith's essay please go to: http://erdman31.googlepages.com/Smith-LimitedIncarnation.pdf

Citation: James K.A. Smith, “Limited Inc/arnation” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Other essays reviewed in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads:
Bruce Ellis Benson "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics"
James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"
Kevin Vanhoozer "Discourse on Matter"
Nicholas Wolterstorff "Resuscitating the Author"


ktismatics said...

Did you do the Smith-on-Derrida discussion at Church and Postmodern Culture blog? A lot of commenters, including me, thought Smith was offering up Derrida lite, taking the sting out of his deconstructive method. As I read Derrida, he's looking for what the author doesn't intend to say but that unconsciously slips into the text anyway. Usually it's the opposite of the intent, the thing that undermines the intent.

As a poststructuralist, Derrida wanted to pry texts out of their usual contexts, to dismantle the cultural presuppositions that constrain discourses and keep them from opening out onto different possibilities. If there's a role model for my Genesis 1 exegesis, it's Derrida.

I personally think that Smith is corrupting Derrida. Maybe he's deconstructing him, saying that Derrida subconsciously wants to uphold the existing structures and to resist difference. I don't think that's it, though. I just think Smith is wrong.

Jonathan Erdman said...

But isn't deconstruction only a part of what Derrida has developed over the course of his career?

Two things:
First, Derrida obviously cares about authorial intent, or he wouldn't get cranky when people don't understand his intention.
Second, it seems clear that Derrida reads his texts very closely. In other words, authorial intent (or at least something like the "goal" of authorial intent) is an important part of any deconstructive process.

As you put it, Derrida looks for the thing that undermines intent, but on my reading you are created the precise type of dichotomy that easily deconstructs itself. I don't think Derrida is asking the question of whether we should look for the authors intent or his non-intent. This just isn't his primary concern. The intent/non-intent distinction is unstable and they slide into one another.

Finding what the author intended is related to finding what the author did not intend....and vica-versa.

It is the combination of looking for what is said and what is unsaid that is at the heart of deconstruction, and this means authorial intent will always be there as a (de)stabilizer.

Just some thoughts....I'm not a Derrida scholar!

John said...

Geez, I was all set to go to bed and now this! I think this notion of intended/unintended meanings "sliding into one another" is a sequelae to Derrida's reading of texts. You would be hard-pressed to say that when Jesus says he is the way that he also means he isn't the way. Not every text undermines itself like this, but when it does it's a dramatic reversal. Sliding into one another is, I think, a Hegelian maneuver to smooth things over that Derrida wants to keep polarized. He's a multiplier of differences, not a synthesizer. More later, perhaps.

John said...

Oops, I showed up as John that time didn't I? Using my wife's computer. I'll be John again this time too, but you know who I really am. Er, John.

ktismatics said...

Derrida: "Differance is the nonfull, nonsimple, structured and differentiating origin of differences... we will designate as differance the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted 'historically' as a weave of differences... differance is the name we might give to the 'active,' moving discord of different forces, and of differences of forces."

Derrida cites Nietzsche and Freud as the godfathers of differance, especially with respect to their emphasis on the unconscious. The supposedly unified self is better characterized an ever-shifting congeries of multiple forces. Authorial intent is a temporary, unstable and emergent complex of these forces. If you start poking away at a text you will find traces of all the other unconscious trajectories weaving their way through the discourse. This is precisely what interests Derrida: to pull these threads apart from one another, to give them their due, rather than subjecting them to the tyranny of coherence, synthesis, identity, consistency.

Authorial intent is based on the myth of a unified self who can control the various voices muttering away in his head. A self is like a language: a complex interplay of differences. Thought and speech are difference-generators, operations of differance.

Jonathan Erdman said...

From my reading of Smith's article I don't think Smith would disagree with your last comments on Derrida.

For example, Smith cites Derrida:
A context can never be completely saturated or determined because there is always a dual element of absence: of senders from receivers, but also of senders from themselves. (120-21 of Smith's article, and see p. 2 of my .pdf review.)

It is the last part of that quote that I think goes to the point of your most recent comment: "of senders from themselves."

Also, Smith also talks about authorial intent being one of several meanings (I'm paraphrasing).

So, I think that Smith is acknowledging the absence element in Derrida that you are raising, but Smith also insists on an element of presence, and he believes it is the dual element of absence/presence that reveals Derrida's true genius: A refusal to priviledge one or the other. Do you believe that Derrida denies any presence whatsoever?

Again, as I mentioned, Derrida would have no basis for having people look for his intended meaning in a text (and gripe so much when they missed it) if he didn't acknowledge some notion of presence. The fact that Derrida can complain about people missing his point says something. Smith takes note of this in the essay.

But, perhaps I am missing your point!

John said...

I wasn't talking about absence. For Derrida, as for Nietzsche and Freud, presence is multiple. Any discourse contains many authorial intents, only some of which are conscious. The unified self-as-author isn't absent, just overstated.

And we're not yet talking about the reader's ability to discern the author's many voices without conflating them with his own biases. That's not a dominant theme in Derrida -- or at least not in the Derrida I've read.

ktismatics said...

I think Smith interprets Derrida as if he were Gadamer, suggesting that the author is influenced by the collective mind. Smith regards the collective mind as decisive, almost canonical, in generating and interpreting texts, and he uses Derrida (wrongly, in my opinion) to support the collective.

This is this whole presuppositional community of faith thing that runs through a lot of emergent church writings. Nietzsche certainly understood the collective mind -- he called it the herd. Freud did too -- he called it the superego. Derrida has no use for the collective's desire to suppress other streams of consciousness and unconsciousness in the name of consensus. He wants all those voices to be heard.

samlcarr said...

Off the thread of this discussion, but I recall C.S. Lewis having some rather nasty comments to make on his critics and commentators attempts to work out his (Lewis's) reasons for taking this or that position. I think that he went on to comment on how if we couldn't understand our contemporaries, our theories about authors of the past would have to be that much junk - "Modern Theology and Biblical Critcism" in Christian Reflections (ed. W. Hooper, Eerdmans, 1967).

John said...

The cover of this book is really ugly, no?

Jonathan Erdman said...

If you hold it in your hand it's not so bad. But the graphic I show does look a bit "aesthetically challenged."

James K.A. Smith said...

Jonathan pointed me to the discussion here. Can't do it justice in blogosphere space or time, but just two things quickly:

(1) I find the "domesticating Derrida" charge a bit boring and slightly confusing, since in this particular piece I try to pretty carefully show this from the text of _Limited Inc_--a text which generally ruins the picture of Derrida that many either demonize or celebrate. I find those who make the charge that I'm domesticating Derrida don't offer an alternative reading of the texts that I cite from Derrida's own hand. And as for making Derrida out to be Gadamer: (a) I'm critical of Gadamer in _Fall of Interpretation_, and (b) more to the point, one should first read Derrida's own later reading of Gadamer given at the memorial for Gadamer, in which Derrida pretty much repents for being such a prick in 1982, and then proceeds to draw a picture of "deconstruction" that sounds alot like what Caputo suggested 20 years ago: a "radical" hermeneutics. Derrida never left Heidegger behind.

(2) I completely agree about the cover: ugh!

ktismatics said...

I can see why James Smith is bored by this discussion, having seen it played out at such lengths already on the Church and Postmodern Culture blog. Since so many commenters on that blog independently (it seems) arrived at the same conclusions I suspect the "Derrida lite" objection has been raised countless times before that. It must get old. Still, it must be flattering to have so many people take your writings seriously enough to stimulate discussions like this one.

I've read more Derrida than I've read Smith-on-Derrida. I'm bored with interpretations of interpretations of Derrida: it's like reading commentaries on a movie you've never watched. A direct reading of Derrida would be more informative, and a discussion of Derrida in which each reader is a participant would be more interesting than a discussion of one guy's "movie review" -- even a really good movie review.

Although Derrida made a pretty good living as a movie reviewer, didn't he? He too points to the texts he's reading more than to his own interpretations of the texts. His is an approach to reading more than a stable set of interpretations, don't you think? To identify the definitive Derridean perspective on anything is like trying to figure out what Nietzsche really believes about good and evil. It's partly a game of how many different interpretations you can come up with, how many threads you can unravel. Maybe it's time for somebody to do alternative readings of Smith: the commonly-accepted version has gotten hegemonic and boring.

Derrida's tribute to Gadamer -- is there a particular reference?

ktismatics said...

I wonder whether Smith discusses his own incarnational hermeneutic in this book? I've read some of it elsewhere: the idea is that God created man as a language-user, God declared the creation to be good, so God must regard linguistic communication as a good thing and not just a limitation resulting from man's post-Fall separation from God. That idea I think is very cool, and one that merits discussion in its own right regardless of Derrida.

Jonathan Erdman said...

James K.A. Smith said...
(1) I find the "domesticating Derrida" charge a bit boring and slightly confusing, since in this particular piece I try to pretty carefully show this from the text of _Limited Inc_--a text which generally ruins the picture of Derrida that many either demonize or celebrate. I find those who make the charge that I'm domesticating Derrida don't offer an alternative reading of the texts that I cite from Derrida's own hand.

Fair enough! And thanks for taking the time to weigh in on our discussion here.

My reaction to your article basically attempts to continue the discussion of the relevance of Derrida to biblical interpretation (given your reading of Derrida). From the article I gather the following applications to biblical hermeneutics:
1 - Due to the nature of text ("iterability", "context," etc.) interpretation is risky business. (no allusion to the business of Tom Cruise in the movie by the same name...)
2 - The concept of "Authorial Intent" is not a magic formula guaranteeing success. It might be better classified as a sort-of phantom goal that will always seem to allude us - at least to some degree.
3 - The above does not result in an interpretive free-for-all because the community (in our case the church) can appropriately act as an "interpretive police" and fix interpretation, or at least boundaries.

These points, as far as I can see, provide some general cautions for biblical hermeneutics as well as some correctives to overly-optimistic goals of "authorial intent." This brings me to an interesting statement made by Ktismatics (see above, a few comments up):
His [Derrida] is an approach to reading more than a stable set of interpretations, don't you think?

Would it be fair to say that the relevance of Derrida, then, is more in terms of an "approach to reading" rather than an exhaustive interpretive system? The difference may seem subtle, at first, but from my experience with conservative biblical interpreters there is a search for a comprehensive set of scientific rules to govern interpretation. Hence, philosophical hermeneutics (PH) in general (and Derrida in particular) can be threatening because the point of PH is not to develop a comprehensive plan for interpretation, but to study language, reading, communication, etc. and to open up interpretation and expose the "risks." (As Ktismatics states: to peel away the various layers of a text.)

This, perhaps, goes back to the issue of whether texts are something to be "fixed" or if they are, after all, more "fluid." Whether interpretation is "science" or "art."

James K.A. Smith said...

I apologize for using the term "boring"--that made me sound even more pompous and arrogant than I am. I should have said I just find them puzzling. I've read quite a bit of Derrida, too, and I think that the free-for-all-play-of-interpretations reading just doesn't stand up to his corpus. In this respect, I think a close reading of _Limited Inc_ is important, as well as a number of interviews where Derrida protests against this interpretation of him.

Two other later movements in Derrida are also of interest here: (1) his engagement with critical theory in _Fichus_ (which I don't think is translated yet); and (2) as I mentioned, his later commentary on Gadamer in _Beliers_ (Galilee, 2003). An abridged version of this has been translated as "Uninterrupted Dialogue: Between Two Infinites, the Poem," in _Research in Phenomenology_ 34 (2004), pp. 3-19. I discuss this very briefly in _Jacques Derrida: Live Theory_ (Continuum, 2005).

Perhaps I should also say that I'm not trying to argue that Derrida is "useful" for a Christian hermeneutic or biblical interpretation. Rather, I think Derrida just gets it right about the _conditions_ of interpretation, but that his account of the conditions of interpretation needn't "worry" a Christian hermeneutic which properly embraces the play of created finitude. I think Derrida is absolutely right that there is nothing "essential" about texts which "fixes" them or halts the play of signifiers. The nature of texts is their iterability, the possibility of being de- and re-contextualized, etc. However, that (almost) ontological reality doesn't mean that we don't pragmatically make decisions all the time about what will constitute a "good" or "legitimate" interpretation in a given context, for a given purpose, etc. When Derrida unpacks this in _Limited Inc_ (the "Afterword"), he starts to sound alot like Wittgenstein--which is why I suggested that there could be a fertile discussion between "postliberal" accounts of biblical interpretation (which track with Wittgenstein) and what I was trying to develop from a Derridean trajectory.

Perhaps that helps a bit. Thanks for the questions; this helps me crystallize some of my thoughts on these matters. My plan is for this essay to become part of a larger monograph on Derrida and so this will help me clarify the next version.

ktismatics said...

Okay, so maybe I’m overplaying the differences. I guess there are two kinds of people…

Derrida plays around a lot, but he's serious about the texts. Texts aren't some kind of raw material for the reader to free-associate over; they contain within themselves the multiple trajectories of interpretation that Derrida seeks to unravel. A text may have a dominant motif that embodies the writer's intended meaning, but there are lietmotifs and unconscious meanings to be found in the text as well. Derrida wants to expose these apparently secondary meanings to the light of day.

Similarly, interpretive communities may consciously share a set of core commitments and beliefs that guide their readings of texts. But there are always multiple minority perspectives out at the frontiers, populated by people who see things that the majority can't or won't see.

The concern is whether the lietmotifs can be seen, whether the minorities can be heard. An objectively definitive reading is not attainable: how much hermeneutical authority is granted to the strong over the weak, the normative over the marginal, before the interpretive police break out the truncheons? I think the postmodern concerns about totalizing discourses, metanarratives, hegemonic practices, etc. come into play here. Creeds, councils, systematic theologies, and so on have historically suppressed the weaker minority positions, exiling them or driving them underground. By vesting hermeneutical authority in the interpretive community there’s a danger of legitimizing the historically oppressive dominion of power over weakness, of uniformity over difference.

To many Gadamer supports the conservative stance; Derrida, the radical. Jamie seems to side with the conservative position, co-opting or synthesizing the radical in the service of majority dominance. This is an oversimplification, of course, but if things were simple, word would have gotten around… In any event, perhaps this oversimplification sheds some light on the perplexity. I’m now inspired to head back to the texts, and on to the unread texts, instead of relying on my own traditional readings and presuppositions.

The other issue is how to open up the traditions and communities in which texts and readers are embedded. The medieval hierarchy was dominated a spiritual-intellectual elite who would decide on behalf of the community. Democratic inclinations replace the spiritual aristocracy with majority rule and demagoguery: it’s not clear whether that’s an improvement in church or in government. A strictly non-judgmental multiculturalism runs into trouble in politics; it probably does also in church. A marketplace is supposedly an open collective, but clearly there are forces at work shaping individual desires and behaviors. What other models allow the possibility of differance as a fairly strong force within the community? Or must differance stay outside the established order as a disruptive and potentially revolutionary force?

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks a bunch for your post. It was very helpful in clarifying your general direction in evaluating Derrida.

If I may, I thought I would ask a question here. I wondered if you could unpack this statement you made:
I think Derrida is absolutely right that there is nothing "essential" about texts which "fixes" them or halts the play of signifiers.

You followed this up by mentioning how we can "pragmatically make decisions" about what constitutes good interpretation, and that Derrida, himself unpacks this in _Limited Inc_(the "Afterword") where you say that he "sounds alot like Wittgenstein."

This gets my attention because of some of my research and application of Wittgenstein's "language-games."

A few clips from Ludwig:

For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (PI p.18)

Wittgenstein, it seems, wants us to "look" and see how language is used and how it is used in the game. Shortly after stating that the meaning of a word is its use in its language-game Wittgenstein imagines a situation in which we might try to determine meaning outside of a language-game:

It is: like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb “to sleep” meant something active or passive. (PI p.19)

In other words, "to sleep" only has meaning in so far as the context or language-game in which it is used.

Also key to the language-games concept is the "life-form" (Lebensform) in which language occurs:

Our language may be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses…And to imagine a language means to imagine a life-form (Lebensform). (PI p. 7)

Do these thoughts from Wittgenstein put him at odds with your statement that there is nothing "essential" about texts which "fixes" them or halts the play of signifiers??? Doesn't the game in which language is played provide something "essential" that might fix interpretation or halt the play of signifiers?

On Wittgenstein's example the boy cannot determine whether "to sleep" is active or passive until he has some context or language-game in which to make the determination. But once he is participating in a specific language-game doesn't that provide him with the ability to fix his interpretation of whether "to sleep" is active or passive?

Similarly, don't we make our "pragmatic" decisions about textual meaning based upon something in the text? The language-game in which the use of the language occurred?

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