Long ago, when I was an undergrad, I learned how to read Tarot cards. (Hey, stop rolling your eyes; I saw that.) I haven’t done it in years, though when I was a professor at Cortland we’d go on writing retreats to this Adirondack camp with our students and my colleague, Vicky Boynton, and I would do readings for students for a laugh. No one I’ve ever read cards for believes they are magical or that I am psychic. At the same time, very often people who were generally strangers to me would remark on how uncanny the experience was, how I seemed to know things about their past, and how the predictions of the future made sense. The immediate explanation one might want to offer is that I was conning them, that it was a sly rhetorical performance where I read their reactions, fished for information, and other things like that.
But I’ll be honest: I wasn’t working that hard.
A better explanation is equally obvious and even less magical than that. If you know anything about Tarot cards, you’d know that the various suits and the major arcana have story arcs to them and that there’s a great deal of structural similarity among the story arcs (e.g. the aces always have something to do with beginnings and the tens always have something to do with endings). On top of that, the various patterns in which the cards are laid out (the Celtic cross is the most recognizable) also have a story structured into them (some spots are about the past, others about the people around you, your hopes and fears, etc.). In short a Tarot reading is a pseudo-random story generator where all the stories fall within a particular set of plots and themes. And then the people getting their cards read do the rest. Just as you might read a novel and get taken up in the story, people who are willing can see themselves in the story of a tarot reading. And since the built-in morality of the cards (what you should or shouldn’t do, what to be careful about, what an opportunity looks like, etc) are culturally familiar, the inherent lessons aren’t hard to follow or at least see as meaningful and sensible.
So that’s Tarot cards. I’m assuming I didn’t give away any secrets there. Here’s the more difficult step. Critical theories work the same way as Tarot cards. They are heuristics, sets of procedures, for constructing interpretations. They feel true in the same way Tarot readings feel true, because while they rely upon known and predictable structures of meaning in the theory (which, for example, help readers identify the symptoms of various cultural-ideological structures as they manifest in a text), they also almost invariably generate some unexpected connections. We call these insights, and they strike us with the power of truth. I often tell graduate students about the first time I read A Thousand Plateaus and I was seeing rhizomes everywhere for weeks. What was compelling for me about that book and a lot of postmodern theory was how it would generate that affective/aesthetic experience of the truth. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “religious experience.”
The difference is that about a year into graduate school I caught on to the trick. After that, I could still appreciate the power and usefulness of theories and interpretations. That’s like the part where as a reader of Tarot cards you recognize that actually you can make a single layout of the cards tell different stories if you like. And each of those stories has the same capacity to impart that experience of “truth,” provided that you tell it well enough. All of that lead me early on to view theory as a heuristic for composing rather than a hermeneutic for revealing. That the results could be valued for their significance, what they were about to do, rather than their signification, what they claimed to represent.
So let’s turn this toward current events… Perhaps you have seen some interpretations of, oh I don’t know,
- why Clinton lost
- why people voted for Trump
- why people still support him
- what Trump’s actions and plans will mean for American and the world
- what those who oppose Trump should do next, etc. etc.
Am I suggesting that we should stop interpreting? Of course not, as if such a thing were possible. I am suggesting that one might view the ontological status of interpretations differently, not as revelations of the truth but as tools that create capacities. This is not as dramatic a difference as it might first seem. At the core, representations of truth (or claims to such) have value because decisions and actions we take based on them work as we might hope. (Or at least that’s my argument here.) I’m saying something slightly different which is that knowledge that we construct has value if it allows us to do things. We draw a map through the wilderness. Does it “truly” represent the wilderness? Maybe. What do you mean by true? If we follow the map, do we get to the other side? Yes. Well, okay then, that’s what we’re after.
Are the Trump administration and its supporters truly racist, religious extremists? Maybe. If it quacks like a duck, etc. Perhaps such an interpretation strikes you with the ringing power of truth. Maybe it pisses you off. Here though, the question is what does such a construction allow us to do? The difference is that claims to represent the truth lock you in. If you believe in a particular interpretation of the Bible, for example, you’re locked into those capacities. You can’t even consider a different interpretation of the world. The same thing can happen, though perhaps with not quite the same degree of intransigence, with critical theory (though critical theories have their true believers as well).
The dangers with such things, as we’ve already seen, is that people take all this to me that there’s no such thing as truth, that one can pick whatever “alternative facts” suit their purposes, and, when necessary, wholly fabricate statistics (or terrorist attacks that never happened). Not to psychologize this business, but that’s kind of like truth withdrawal or something. If we can’t have the Truth then we know nothing but lies and all lies are equally untrue. Yes, it is crazy but one hopes it’s a temporary insanity that’s part of the recovery process. The tough part is that when you can’t rely on truth, when you can’t expect some pre-formated procedure to spit out truth like pressing keys on a calculator, then you have to work a lot harder. Every connection, every mediation, must be tested and made strong. And ultimately the interpretation will need to prove itself in the capacities it offers us.
In short, instead of telling me what you think is true, make something useful.