In order to talk and think sensibly about the various ways of engaging with texts, we need to distinguish them by reference to relevant differences and commonalities between them. This paper focusses on the conceptual relations between three ways of engaging with texts that figure prominently in literary scholarship: textual interpretation, literary interpretation, and aesthetic appreciation. Rather than giving a full analysis of these three terms, this paper has two specific concerns. First, it is argued that literary interpretation is best understood as a species of textual interpretation. Second, and relatedly, some theorists argue that the discriminating feature of literary interpretation is its aim of aesthetic appreciation. Aesthetic appreciation may refer to either (i) a judgement about or (ii) an experience of or (iii) an attempt to identify and evaluate the aesthetic properties of something. The idea that appreciative judgements or experiences are the main aims of literary interpretation should not lead to a conceptual confusion of literary interpretation with aesthetic evaluation (or appreciative acts), even if there is a sense in which the idea is correct. Aesthetic appreciation is, at most, a secondary aim of literary interpretation and may function as a motivation to engage in literary interpretation. This aligns well with the idea that aesthetic appreciation has a significance independent from interpretation. Their conceptual distinction notwithstanding, it is argued that there are interesting evidential relations between (literary) interpretation and aesthetic appreciation. These relations of support, evidence, or justification may go either way.
Some literary scholars assume that appreciation, if it is to take a central position in literary studies, must be defined as a complement to value-neutral understanding. It is often claimed that positivists are unable to do justice to literary value since their engagement with works of literature is restricted to historical inquiry. They can only do the preparatory work for the proper goal of literary interpretation, i. e. aesthetic appreciation. On this basis, a distinction is introduced between historical scholarship and criticism. The former is supposedly concerned with factual questions, while the latter is concerned with aesthetic qualities. I argue that this picture of literary studies is fundamentally misguided. My central thesis is that positivists, though committed to value-neutrality, can nonetheless recognise the qualities that make a work of literature effective or rewarding. Literary appreciation is a form of understanding that involves evaluative terms. But if these terms are duly relativised to the interests of the historical agents, they can be used to articulate empirically testable statements about the work in question.
In the first section, I set out some principles to define a positivist philosophy of the humanities. I use the term ›positivism‹ to designate an approach exemplified by Otto Neurath, who systematically opposes the reification of meanings and values in the humanities. While some scholars in the analytical tradition call into question positivism by invoking Wittgenstein, I will suggest that his later philosophy is for the most part compatible with Neurath’s mindset. The following sections attempt to spell out a positivist account of literary appreciation. I develop this account by examining the philosophy of criticism proposed by Stein Haugom Olsen and Peter Lamarque, the most prominent advocates of the idea that appreciation goes beyond mere understanding. In discussing their misappropriation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, it will become apparent that they tend to idealise literary practice and its rules. Their description of the institution of literature mixes factual questions with personal value judgements. Positivists, by contrast, seek to distinguish factual matters from subjective judgements and to limit the study of literature as far as possible to the former. They advise critics to approach works of literature in the spirit of scientific inquiry. This does not mean, however, that there is no place for emotional experience and evaluative behaviour in the framework of positivism. To account for these aspects of literary scholarship, a theory of historical empathy is needed that clarifies the function of evaluative expressions in the explanation of literature. I will argue that value terms are used not solely or primarily to articulate what makes the work under consideration pleasurable for the scholar who uses them; their principal function is to indicate what makes a work satisfying from the perspective of the writer or from the perspectives of the groups the author seeks to impress. Empathy is exhibited in the willingness to use evaluative language to make sense of the writer’s behaviour, regardless of whether one finds the work personally rewarding or not.
Some of the mainly unchartered territories in literary criticism are the implications of Susan Sontag’s frontal attack on traditional hermeneutical practices in Against Interpretation (1969). This contribution to investigations into the modes of interpretation attempts to draw constructive consequences from this provocation and investigate the notion of a ›poetics of criticism‹ emanating into what can be called the ›aesthetics of interpretation‹. In so doing, it explores the Romantic backdrop of this discourse through examining Friedrich Schlegel’s plea for a ›poetization‹ of critique and his demand to turn critical approaches into aesthetic, if not artistic, acts. Then, these reflections examine notions of perception or Anschauung as a cornerstone of comprehension; discuss poetic renderings of thought with Nietzsche, who epitomizes the fusion of reflection and aesthetic production; single out one of Gottfried Benn’s early poems (»Kreislauf«) as an object for putting aesthetic interpretation into practice given the specific character of this Expressionistic text; and, finally, assess elements of theories of recognition in terms of aesthetic practice with specific reference to a paragraph in early Adorno, which highlights cognitive transformation processes as matters of aesthetic experience.
Thus, this essay illustrates the interrelationship between critical theory and practice as an aesthetic act, which takes into account the significance of Sontag’s challenge, exemplifying the necessity of finding a language register that can claim to strive towards adequacy in relation to the (artistic) object of criticism without compromising analytical rigour.
The argument developed in this contribution towards an aesthetics of interpretation begins with a critical appreciation of various forms and modes of criticism in literature and other aspects of artistic expression. It centres on the significance of the dialogue as an explorative means of critical discourse, ranging from Friedrich Schlegel to Hugo von Hofmannsthal and indeed Hans Magnus Enzensberger. With the (fictive) dialogue as an instrument of aesthetic judgement, ›experience‹ entered the stage of literary criticism negotiating ambivalences and considering alternative points of view often generated from the texts under consideration.
In terms of the ambivalences mentioned above, this investigation into the nature of criticism considers the notion of criticism as a form of art and an extrapolation of aesthetic reason as propagated already by Henry Kames, once even quoted by Hegel in connection with the establishing of a rationale for the critical appreciation of artistic products.
It discusses the interplay of distance from, and empathy with, objects of aesthetic criticism asking to what extent the act of interpretation (Wolfgang Iser) can acquire a creative momentum of its own without distorting its true mission, namely to assess the characteristics and aesthetic qualities of specific (poetic) texts or other artistic objects. Following the closer examination of several of Nietzsche’s poems and Roland Barthes’s insistence on the segmentation of the linguistic material that constitutes a textual entity worthy of criticism, the article examines one of Gottfried Benn’s early poems (»Kreislauf«, 1912) in respect of its textual and structural dynamics, awkward sensuality as a form of negative eroticism. On the basis of a detailed linguistic, and indeed poetic, examination it shows where, when, and how literary criticism can meaningfully identify structural features as denominators for aesthetic experience.
The final section is devoted to instrumentalize Adorno’s point that concepts can turn with some inevitability into images enabling the theory of cognition to acquire some credibility as a potentially fertile basis for aesthetic practice – both in literary criticism and poetic production. With a concluding reference to Paul Celan’s remark that language acquires a Being of its own and that something of existential significance occurs in the poem, this article illustrates that interpretation depends on a successful interplay of cognitive and sensual processes, which leaves criticism somewhere between aesthetic analysis and contextualization as well as between taking linguistic images metaphorically or indeed literarily. Finally, it suggests regarding aesthetic criticism as a way to assess both the actual creative process and its results as if they were involved in a ›dialogue‹ of their own. Therefore, interpretation can be seen as a process that generates its very own dynamics and procedures (i. e. ›poetics‹), either in relation to its object or in form of a juxtaposition. If the latter, the likelihood is stronger that ›interpretation‹ acquires more distinctiveness. Ultimately, however, the (quasi-performative) quality of interpretation depends on its stylistic features, the adequacy of language used, and conceptual stringency without disregarding its essential function, namely to enable a dialogue between the work of art and its recipient and the recipients amongst themselves.
Today, as announced by this special issue, the contest of interpretation against aesthetic experience appears urgent and timely. For surely a critical profession should clarify its sense of how to proceed before actually engaging to do so. But how are we to have any such sense in advance of an encounter with the literary text, ostensible object of the discipline? I argue that it is only within the limits of critique, as met with in the objectivity of the artwork, that we might be confident of our interpretations.
To paraphrase Hegel, literary interpretation misses an advantage enjoyed by the natural sciences (Hegel 1959, 33). Although recourse may be made to individual works of formal writing in »evidence« of a theory, still, no literary interpretation can presume its methods to be already accepted. Moreover, purely »systematic or theoretical« discussions of interpretation ring hollow when and, indeed, because they are empty of perceptible content. For the honest reader, the literary artwork remains sensibly resilient or resistant to, not to say frustrating of, systematic discussions – and this must be taken into account. As readers (rather than philosophers) of literature we are in luck, for even (or especially) without determining the meaning of a given work, we have before us something that remains »outside« of us. In sustaining his or her attention to this external object (and in coming to regard it as an »artwork«), and thus compelled to see the qualitative distance within and structuring experience, the reader finds that the text is more than just some thing or technical device to conceal meaning. It is what Adorno calls »the objectivity« of the artwork produced by the »movement of the mind« of the subject that, I argue, critiques the apparent choice of independent meaning or independent sensuousness as alternative bases for interpretive practice (Adorno 1983, 19). The literary work, as it becomes objective for its reader, becomes too a limit upon how that reader interprets it, that is, a limit upon the merely subjective.
The trouble with the question of whether to privilege the sensuousness or the meaning of art, is that it is framed as though this were still a choice to be made, as if the one could be isolated from, and be taken without concern for the other. Perhaps we cannot be reminded too often, as Claudia Brodsky reminds us, that not since the »first modern redefinition« of the »aesthetic« in Kant’s Third Critique could »specific content« be »considered in isolation from form«. No more can the critical project be put back into the bottle, than the »dynamism« of form articulated through Kant’s analysis of aesthetic judgment be reduced once more to either static form or content. The consideration of »meaning« isolated from form must remain, alas, the advantage of the natural sciences. If, as Brodsky continues with Kant’s definition, »dynamic, ›purposive‹ form causes our pleasure in the aesthetic«, then the consideration of sensory experience isolated from form »remains tied to [the] original, ancient meaning« of »aesthetic«, »that of pertaining to any sensory experience at all« (Brodsky 1997, 376). If subsequently it has come to seem as though the (external) »uncovering of meaning« and (internal) »aesthetic pleasure« are at incommunicable odds, we must recall that these two cannot be separated out from one another in the analysis of a perceptible object without the aesthetic disappearing entirely from view – for, by modern definition, the appearance of their mutual implication is what we mean when we call something an »aesthetic« object. The clean, absolute break between subject and object implicit in the ancient definition is irreparably complicated by Kant’s radical analysis of aesthetic perception and its implication that subjectivity and formal objecthood cannot be insulated, one from the other. Even when the ancient meaning of »aesthetic« is taken up in order to speak again of sensation as bracketed off from form, such considerations are not to our advantage as interpreters and critics of literature, but rather lead into other, more positive disciplines, having no purchase upon that doubling movement of the formal object and perceiving subject. The consequences of this critical redefinition for the practice of literary interpretation are still not settled, or even if theoretically settled, not yet absorbed into practice.
The editors of this special issue have proposed an impasse in, or crisis between aesthetics and interpretation as our subject today. Within the tradition of aesthetics as dynamic form or double movement sketched here between Kant and Adorno, I locate another radical tradition of interpretation, that of black aesthetic critique. With the particular sensory availability of visual art in mind, this essay considers not only James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), but also a work in another medium and separated by a long century in the political arc of black subjects in the United States, an untitled etching by the artist Glenn Ligon. With reference to discussions by Darby English (2005), Marie de Brugerolle (1995) and Andrea Miller-Keller (1992), this essay analyzes the ways in which Ligon’s etching is irreducible to his political identity. For one of the most powerful effects of the visibly differentiated presence of Ligon’s work is its ability to make us »see« that the intentional structure of an artwork, i. e. the interrelating of parts internal to itself, much like the fictively »autobiographical« structure of ECM, does not so much »communicate« or teach us about race in the United States, as use patterned abstraction to critique the impulse to turn to aesthetic objects to explicate social conditions, extract recognizable meanings, or ground political decisions. These works do not allow themselves to be read unproblematically as about black lives or as representative of black situations. Their »difficulty« inhibits any reading (whether called phenomenological or ontological) in which the difference of material and representation, or the difference of the representational and the representative is collapsed in an attempt to enjoy a clearer, less troubled (less literary) view through the perspective ostensibly afforded by the (black authored) work, as though it were a transparent »window« either onto the world or »into« the (black) subject. Furthermore, because each of these works self-consciously situate themselves within the troubled socio-history of black autobiography, black literacy, and presupposing racialist ontologies, what I will describe as their objectivity upsets not only ontological accounts, but also those social fictions of race that, among other more lethal consequences, have interpreted and continue to interpret works such as these to be »representative« of black experience. Considering the canon of African American literature by closely examining selected texts containing critiques of that very category, I propose, as it were, a third way, one that heeds the artwork’s own critique of interpretation and so helps us to move beyond the impasse suggested by the editors. The potential of the art object is critical. The aim of the analytic work in this current study is to restore to our encounter with these works the capacities for aesthetic attention and judgement occasioned by all »authentic« artworks, that is, works that do not conform to their audiences’ expectations.