Archive for the ‘intertextuality’ Category
At the moment I am working on the section of my thesis which tries to explain what a canonical approach to interpretation actually is. This is a harder question than I first thought. Here’s a summary of my thinking so far:
1. The canon is a cohesive, ordered collection of texts.
2. Choosing to read one of these texts canonically involves privileging the intra-canonical intertext above extra-canonical intertexts.
3. This involves a choice (whether conscious or not) on the part of the reader and does not deny the possibility of other interpretations, merely the right of other interpretations to be called canonical.
4. This intertextual interpretation must be governed by those canonical texts which describe the nature of the whole canonical intertext. That is to say, the canon’s own statements about its origin, purpose, content and audience need to be considered in a canonical interpretation of any part of the canon.
5. One of the things the canon tells us about itself is that it is divine discourse: God speaks through the canon.
6. Which means that the reader’s choice of a canonical interpretation in fact leads to an emphasis on the (implied) divine author’s communicative intent.
7. The divine author’s communicative intent is by no means limited to the passing on of information. The canon tells us that God’s purposes for the canon include things like making promises; giving warnings; making people wise for salvation; establishing covenant and so on. A helpful model for clarifying these kinds of things is Austin’s speech act theory. Locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts describe what is said, what is done by saying, and what results from what is said. All of these (and a fourth kind of speech act identified by Vanhoozer, the interlocutionary act) are part of the communicative intent of the divine author implied in the canonical text. Thus all of these should inform a canonical interpretation.
8. Canonical interpretation will thus make demands on the reader. A canonical interpretation will implicate the reader in the illocutionary, perlocutionary and interlocutionary acts. The effects of an interpretation will thus form one means of evaluating it: not simply ‘Is it right?’ but ‘Does it work?’
I’m writing a paper at the moment on intertextuality. Actually, it’s an intertextual reading of a part of the Song of Songs with ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Lover’ by Christopher Marlowe. The principle underlying intertextual readings is, as Peter Miscoll so nicely summarizes, ‘No text is an island’. When an author puts pen to paper (or stylus to clay), he is not writing in a vacuum. He uses words and ideas, images and syntax that others have used before him. If he is a good author, he will bring those things together in novel ways to create new meanings. But those new meanings are created against the already existing meanings of the building blocks he is using. Otherwise his text would be wholly unintelligible. This is the principle that drives those scholars working in the field of ANE comparative literature to read biblical texts alongside their ancient counterparts, comparing and contrasting and establishing meaning in ‘new’ ways. These ‘new’ meanings for us are, of course, thought to be closer to the ‘original’ meanings created by the author.
In a similar way, this principle of intertextuality is something that has been consciously, or unconsciously, used by biblical interpreters for a long time. The reformation principle of scripture interpreting scripture, for example, expresses a notion of intertextuality. Or, as we used to chant with the AL’s on camp, ‘Bible words have Bible meanings.’ Unlike rabbinic exegetes we don’t usually try to interpret scripture atomistically. We read texts together to establish their meaning. Here the goal is not just to recreate the intertextuality of the original human authors (though this is certainly part of the goal). Something about the notion of canon suggests that it is somehow the appropriate intertext for biblical texts. Even within the boundary of the canon, however, some intertextual readings are controversial, to say the least. Perhaps one important criteria here is that the intertext for a biblical text should always be, at some level, the whole canon. Intertextual readings that only consider parts of the canon should be regarded only as provisional.
But here’s a different way of thinking about intertextuality and meaning. When I read a text, I don’t come to it as a blank slate. I already know what words mean and how they are used in a whole range of other texts. I have experience of different forms, I recognise many metaphors and images, I make connections. I have my own ‘intertextual net’ into which I must slot the new text that I am reading. I don’t have to do this consciously. It’s just what happens when we read. It’s why it’s important to spend lots of time reading texts when you’re learning a language, rather than just learning paradigms and vocabulary.
Now, I might think that it’s important to spend time and energy amending my intertextual net to make it more like that of the author. I might want to learn Ugaritic and read some poetry in that language, or spend time with the ancient Egyptian love poetry. I might consciously suppress some of my textual awareness, deeming it anachronistic. But there’s a limit to how closely my intertextual net can match that of an unknown ancient Israelite.
And I don’t know that it has to. I think it’s okay for us to read the Bible as ourselves. And to recognise that all of us bring different references and experiences and texts to the Bible and that these will, necessarily and inevitably, affect the meaning that we find. I think it’s a good thing for us to read the Bible more and to make that part of our intertextual net stronger and clearer. But I don’t think that means we should attempt to cut ourselves off from our culture and society and not let any other texts influence our reading. One of the things I’ve been telling my Bible study group is that to become better readers of the Bible, we need to become better readers. We need to be better at seeing irony and allusion, recognising patterns and interpreting imagery. We need to read great literature and fine poetry. And we need to let our experiences of reading those texts help us to read the Bible.
Do Bible words have Bible meanings? Yes. But if those meanings are wholly distinct from their meanings in every other text, then it’s questionable whether they have coherent meaning at all.