Text All the Way Down: Gadamer, Submission, & Entropy

by jdavidcharles

A text is a dialogue. Conversely, when I use the word “text” I mean any object that is approached as a dialogue. Therefore film, theater, liturgy, discussion, music, sign language, interspeciel communication, are all text. Anywhere two objects come together to form some sort of relationally-binding third object, this third object is what I mean by a text. Therefore a marriage is a text as regards the partners involved, fire is a text as regards the spark and kindling, and the human species is a text as regards other species and mutation. This is, of course, all a way of saying everything can be a text given a context. This is tautological in a way, and I get that, that is precisely the point. I could align myself with deconstruction or Foucauldian theory or whathaveyou and use “discourse” or OOO and use “sensual object” or Hegel or a host of other people to get at this point[1], but I am choosing “text” as this is a post specifically about Hans-Georg Gadamer and hermeneutics.

Gadamer throughout his seminal work Truth & Method keeps grounding all hermeneutics in what he calls “tradition.” He defines tradition in its original Latin sense though, that is, something that is “handed down.” This is also tied up with his notion of prejudice. For Gadamer prejudice is not meant to have the connotation of a bad pre-judgment, but rather prejudice means any prejudgment whatsoever. Our prejudices then are our first impression, our fore-conception or fore-having, of a text. Our first inkling of the emergence of a text.

As an example, when I first met my now good friend and roommate I did so under the context of a meeting of various concert music composers at my school. I met him with a certain fore-having/prejudice—I “had” a space in me already as to what he was going to be like, an inscription, a sort of pre-text, the potential for him to emerge as-in-a-relationship. I had this prejudice given a history of course, a history of other friends I had, other composers I had met, etc. The only way in which he could appear to me as a potential friend was because of my prejudice of what he would be like—which was a very tentative, incomplete, and tendential interpretation. Suffice to say as I got to know him, my prejudice, my pre-text or first-interpretation, was constantly revised and deconstructed and re-constructed and obliterated and slightly modified and affirmed and denied. In turn, my tradition, my history of how to approach new people and more specifically composers (and men and people with red hair, etc, etc) was also revised, deconstructed, re-constructed, et al.

Sometimes our prejudices are fitting and appropriate and other times they are oppressive and cruel—this is not so much the concern of this post—but prejudice is always occurring—this is what allows texts to be intelligible. All texts emerge given prejudice—a fore-having of the text. This is what is meant by the “hermeneutic circle” (we approach a text with prejudices which the text revises which changes the prejudices ad infinitum). The point is that when we approach a text we already have a whole set of prejudices we bring to it. And, as a phenomenon, this is essential. There would be no text without prejudices—just as there would be no fire without the kindling to have the potential-to-be-lit. These prejudices exist within a personal tradition, the history of each object involved that are coming together to allow a text to emerge. Following Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer refers to these traditions as horizons and the text as a fusion of horizons. The key is that this fusion as a movement is violent, the emergence of text is a sort of birthing. The fusion is like two objects colliding, two radically differing objects forced to come-to-grips with one another and birth something alien.

This coming-to-grips, the birthing of the alien, is the emergence of text. And this is what I meant earlier by a dialogue—when two persons discuss a common language emerges between the two. The language is neither person A’s language nor person B’s language. It is the violent assault of A over B and B over A that emerges and appears as neither A nor B. It is sort of a collapsed-AB language. It is a text. And here we could go on about how the text is an infinite void or collapse or such but I would rather like to take a sort of detour to make another point—if person B accepts person A’s language whole-heartedly, there is no dialogue, no text. Granted, one wonders if this could ever really happen (I’m always, at the very least, understanding someone’s language through my own language, prejudices, tradition, etc), but, and here I may sound silly, some dialogues are more dialectic than others, some texts more textual.

In a lecture for instance the students are given the burden of having to “do” the majority of the fusing—they are the ones having to conform to the lecturer’s use of language—it is the students’ language receiving the brunt of the collapse. However, it is important to realize there is still fusion; it’s just an asymmetric fusion. There is still a dialogue occurring, the students (hopefully) are not entirely withdrawn from the lecture, they presumably are engaging it as a dialogue (and if the teacher is a good one, s/he is as well). And, of course, the lecture as prepared by the teacher is itself a history of dialogues, the teacher’s host of experiences. And here is where I part ways (somewhat) with Gadamer. It’s text all the way down. The text, although an emergence between two objects, itself is an object and has a history of it’s own which it in turn is in dialogue with thus allowing another text to emerge (i.e. a certain reading of a text, a certain history of a text, a certain community of the text). There is no end to texts, because every prejudice, fore-having, pre-text, tradition, etc., is itself a text.

This is all a way of saying that to engage a tradition-as-a-text, i.e. “orthodoxy,” one inevitably must be in dialogue with it—which is to say, in some sense, not accept its terms. Dialogue, even in a dialogue involving submission, as was the case with the teacher example, emerges as a coming-to-grips, as not wholly accepting the other speaker/object. The kindling does not wholly accept the spark, but rather burns, which is to say engages entropically with the spark. Every birth of a text is also the entropy of a text. Text is itself this breaking down, the collision, the entropy, the fusion of languages/horizons. Thus, even when submitting to a creed or scripture, one submits by questioning, doubting, and breaking down what is being submitted to. To “accept” a creed whole-heartedly would be to mistake one’s prejudice, one’s own text, as the creed itself.

I think here of how in many non-denominational Christian churches (and I admit this is an exaggerated negative stereotype, but, I swear, I have heard people say this) the claim is often made “I don’t need any creeds, denominations, popes, seminaries, or traditions—all I need is me and my Bible.” This is blind prejudice in the negative sense—it assumes that creeds and tradition mediate, that is function as Gadamerian prejudices, and that this is wrong: rather one should trust one’s gut instinct and just read the Bible without any outside aid as this is in some way immediate. Of course this individual is still doing hermeneutics, still bringing prejudices and tradition to the text, but is completely unaware of doing so. Gadamer’s point is rather a Hegelian one—the “immediate” only appears through mediation. Because, as I said, it’s text all the way down. We can never avoid or escape hermeneutics—just be oblivious to it.

To truly engage a creed or scripture is to question it, to not wholly accept it, to break it down, to come-to-grips with it. In that the scripture, which is of course itself a text, engages us, a new text, interpretation, is birthed through our struggle, our breaking down, our entropy. This text in turn is tentative, incomplete, tendential, and entropic. Every interpretation is a revised prejudice. Every reading that happens without this struggle is a reading that covers up the otherness of the text: it disavows what is alien. In this sense, submission is a sort of rebellion.

[1] Granted, all the aforementioned authors mean something very different in their use of their terms: “the real” does not equal a “sensual object” does not equal “power-structure” does not equal the “trace”/”inscription”—they all stress very different aspects of what I see as a similar movement however, namely, the emergence of a relational object.