There is no interpretive practice without theory, and the more sophisticated the theory, the more precise and perceptive the reading it makes possible. (x)
Catherine Belsey “General editor’s introduction” Reading Images (2001)
I’ve been puzzling over this bit for a while, partly because of discussions with Amy. The truth of the assertion pivots on the definition of “interpretive practice.” Belsey’s claim cannot be applied to ordinary language. We do not, in my opinion, walk around with theories in our head in order to interpret an utterance as simple as “ignore me.” While a sophisticated theory can assign multiple values to a simple assertion, in order to interpret the meaning of this statement we need no recourse to theory. There is a presumption in the application of theory that we are talking about value rather than meaning. Utterances carry with them a social currency (value) that is contingent on meaning.
However, the terms are interdependent. Meaning, in terms of a concept which may be interchanged with a word assigning it “proper” meaning, exists within a system of values. As Saussure puts it:
If those other values disappeared, this meaning too would vanish. If I say simply that a certain word means this or that—going no further than identifying the concept associated with that particular sound pattern—then what I am saying may in some respects be accurate, and succeed in giving a correct picture. But I fail inevitably to capture the real linguistic fact, either in its basic essentials or in its full scope. (Course in General Linguistics 116)
It seems possible to speak of a certain presumption that words mean what they say (interpreted necessarily by a person who hears or reads them), and a slightly different presumption that the network of meanings which surround them should be interpreted more carefully through the lens of theory. I interpret the “correct picture” alluded to by Saussure in this way. In the case of ordinary language interpretation, words are often translated into action without the intervention of theory—If I understand the imperative, then I will act. “Ignore me” is of course counterfactual. Few readers would stop at that point and cease to continue. Instead, they read the statement in context with the rest of the assertions. To do so is not to apply a “theory” as much as it is to construct a more complex model of the “message” which lies beyond the constraints of that particular moment in discourse. The relation between word and action is not reducible to the specific “meaning” of any particular word, but its essential value assigned to it relative to a larger discourse, often arrived at without the interference of theory.
Identifying the “full scope” of a particular meaning necessarily involves a paraphrase which implicates theory. The sum of these paraphrases do not constitute the meaning either. There is a surplus which evades explication. They merely isolate particular values within the discourse, generally from a presumed position mistakenly taken as objective. I think it is erroneous to hypostatize this position as being a particular “site” of interpretation. Like the ordinary language example, this position is relative to a presumed response from the interpretation constructed to fit a model of discourse. Without models, we are paralyzed, in either case. Language without action is meaningless. But the models we construct are dynamic. Theories are formed, aggregated, and discarded in an overwhelming desire to make meaning.
I think models are central to interpretive practice. Theories, well, I’m not so sure. Can sophisticated theory be more precise? I think it can only be precise when compared to a very specific model. As Thomas Sebeok describes it:
All organisms communicate by use of models (Umwelts, or self-worlds, each according to its species-specific sense organs), from the simplest representations of maneuvers of approach and withdrawal to the most sophisticated cosmic theories of Newton and Einstein. It would be well to recall that Einstein originally constructed his model of the universe out of nonverbal sings, “of visual and some of muscular type.” As he wrote to a colleague in 1945: “The words or the language as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play a role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in my thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.” Later, “only in a secondary stage,” after long and hard labor to transmute his nonverbal construct into “conventional words and other signs,” was he able to communicate it to others. (Signs 23)
To position theory as essential to interpretation seems to be a mistake. However, the way that theories proliferate surrounding models— as presumptive interpretive practice— seems fascinating.