Sunday, January 3, 2016

Radical honesty as a hermeneutic consideration

I always tell my students that research is, or at least should be, an exercise in radical honesty. It’s about telling your reader (and yourself) exactly what you’re looking at, exactly what you’re trying to cover, and, as much as possible, exactly what you’re not trying to cover. It’s about creating a perception of the text as an open door to a world of other investigative possibilities. It is, like anything we might say, about setting up a scene within which we and others can think. It is, in short, hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive and experiential), which implies an ongoing discussion where no one really gets to have the last word.
And the hermeneutical concern must always be about where we are taking the journey (the conversation) — where, in other words, we are taking others and ourselves, or even where we are taking the world. This does not mean, of course, that “anything goes” (as if such a thing is at all tenable) because honesty requires something to be honest about. You cannot speak the truth if you don’t think there is a truth, right?
I think of the idiom that proclaims honesty to be the best policy. That little word policy comes from the same origin as our words politeness, police and even politics. The idea, in my view, is simply that such honesty is fundamentally about human relationships, and human relationships are about keeping the conversation open (even when we’re chatting about really specific, solid things). This is why I speak of radical honesty and not just plain honesty: Radical honesty includes a stance of vulnerability, it is about the radix — the root, and not just the surface of things — which points not just to shallow concerns but to the heart of who we are and what we think and believe about living in the world.
The idea of radical honesty is not just something applicable to research. It applies to every area of life where dialogue is involved. I think that there’s something quite beautiful in the raw truth — something alarming and disarming about it. But, to be clear, when I promote radical honestly, I’m not talking about an act of verbal brutality or bluntness because to me this is not radical enough; bluntness is wielded in power games, and radical honesty begins with something far more alarming: our fragility.
We all have limitations.
I say this because I think that the fundamental hermeneutical principle pertains to attitude with which we read and not something rigid and inhuman like the precision with which we read — an idea that I introduce in my doctoral thesis with reference to the work of GK Chesterton. It’s not that precision is absolutely unimportant, but its importance is fundamentally rooted in something like the mood or the pathos of what we’re interpreting.
I find a concrete example of a failure of radical honesty in the recent debate that flared up around Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah (2014). Is the debate still ongoing? I’m not sure. Anyway, two people in this debate, Brian Mattson and Peter Chattaway (who shall henceforth be known as Matt and Chatt, for purely poetic reasons), have discussed in particular the likelihood or the unlikelihood that Noah is Gnostic film. Matt pics the its-definitely-Gnostic-because-the-Devil-is-the-Creator-and-also-I-have-a-PhD offensive, while Chatt strongly defends the its-not-Gnostic-because-I-interviewed-Aronofsky defense (A great deal of the debate centers around how we read the snake/snake-skin in the film). And as a visual culture theorist I have to look at the debate between these two (and even as it extends beyond the words of these two)  with a fair amount of bewilderment. It’s not my aim to discuss the theories explained and arguments leveled here (although they are, mind you, all very interesting). I just want to point out something that seems to me to be very obvious: we’re dealing with a movie here — a movie, mind you, that doesn’t strike me as being particularly factual, given that it is based on a work of mythology (the Noah story in 1 Enoch, Genesis, etc), although that’s beside the point I’m trying to make.
Even though I tend to take Chatt’s side in his more generous reading of Aronofsky as a committed theist (rather than Gnostic), I concede that perhaps Matt has made a few fair points. Both “watchers” — that’s a Noah movie in-joke — consider themselves “right” in their opinions of the film, and to some extent they are simply because opinions are an important part of our way of exploring the meaning of such things. But what I do find somewhat problematic in particular is Matt’s utterly rigid hermeneutic. Despite having been shown the possibility that the film can be interpreted differently without sacrificing reason, he still assumes that he must be more correct in his reading of things that are never explicitly confirmed or denied in the visual text that he is looking at. Chatt’s reading confirms, it seems, Aronofsky’s intention, but even so does not manage to quell the possibility that the text can be read differently (a la Matt).
The failure of radical honesty in the above example, I feel, is quite simple: It is a failure of honesty concerning the extent to which we are affected by our prejudices. Matt says, more or less, that people of a Christian persuasion (especially those in authority) who promote the film have done a bad job on the assumption that people who watch it will suddenly perceive that the Devil and God are the same person. Well, maybe some people will do this, but it will probably be because they walked into the cinema with that prejudice already embedded in their psyches. Chatt’s references to his interviewing of Aronofsky only shows that his prejudice was informed by that discussion. It doesn’t, just like Matt’s argument, prove that it cannot be read in another way. So I would offer something more alarming, but perhaps closer to a weird truth. Is Noah Gnostic or not? The answer must be yes. Both hermeneutical possibilities are open to us. What we do with them, then, is the main issue. And, realistically, even those are not the only hermeneutical possibilities.
We all have our confirmation biases and our desires for stability and happiness, and as a consequence our way of reading the texts of film and life must necessarily bear the stamp of our own temperaments. We see the world the way we are, say the Rabbis in the Talmud, not just the way it is. This, I feel, is what radical honesty gives me, both as a lover of research and a love of life: a chance to look not only at what I am doing (reading, research, etc), but a chance to look at how I look at the world. In this way, of course, I must recognize that when I read the world, I am also at the very same time the one being read.

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