Signing in the Flesh: Notes on Pragmatist Hermeneutics
Dmitri N. Shalin
(A version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, Las Vegas, March 13, 2001.
I wish to thank my UNLV students who took part in the 2003 graduate seminar on pragmatist hermeneutics where the ideas of this paper were fleshed out.
I am also grateful to Vincent Colapietro, Hans Joas, Erkki Kilpinen, and Bruce Mazlish for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper. A revised and expanded version of this paper was published in Sociological Theory Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 193-224, http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/Sept07STFeature.pdf).
Gradually it has become clear to me what
every great philosophy so far has been:
namely, the personal confession of its author and
a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir. . . .
The key to a personal poetic attitude of a
philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas,
as if it could be deduced from them, but
rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his
philosophical life, his ethos.
For several decades social scientists have been criticizing the disembodied view of society and human agency. “We now realize,” observed Mary Douglas (1978:298), “that we have unduly privileged the verbal channel and tended to suppose that it could be effective in disembodied form.” In a similar spirit, Jenkins (1994:319) objected to the view of culture as “located from the neck up” and the “traditional dualist idea that the closer we come to the body, the further away we must be from culture.” Richard Shusterman (1997:31) challenged “philosophy’s image as an essentially linguistic discipline” and called to refocus philosophical investigation on “the nondiscursive somatic dimension of life.” Kindred sentiments reverberate throughout the social sciences where scholars express their dissatisfaction with “the text metaphor [that] has virtually . . . gobbled up the body itself” (Csordias, 1999:146), highlight “the crucial role of emotion in the being of the body in society” (Lyon and Barbalet, 1994:63), and advocate “the turn to the body as a primary site of social and cultural theorizing” (Turner, 1994:32).
This paper takes a clue from the incipient movement in the social sciences aiming to complement the traditional concern for discursive dimensions of cultural life with the embodied forms of social phenomena. In particular, it seeks to extend the “paradigm of embodiment” (Csordias 1990) and the pragmatist notion of “bodymind” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) to interpretation theory, suggesting the way we can turn body and emotion into a hermeneutical resource. The discussion begins with classical hermeneutics which equates meaning with authorial intent and logical sense and then contrasts this tradition with the pragmatism-inspired approach that brings into the interpretation process somatic, emotional, and behavioral signs. After outlining pragmatist hermeneutics and based on it biocritical analysis, I focus on postmodernism as a discourse and an embodied practice. Next, I propose a line of inquiry grounded in the hermeneutics of embodiment, discuss its potential as an alternative to depth hermeneutics, and explore interfaces between pragmatist hermeneutics and kindred theoretical perspectives. The paper concludes with a list of questions central to hermeneutical analysis in a pragmatist key.
Reason, Body, and Emotions in Classical and Contemporary Perspectives
From its inception in Greek antiquity, Western philosophy has expressed deep reservations about body and emotions. Plato (1963:62-63) set the tone in this debate, admonishing the knower to stay clear from somatically grounded evidence as inimical to sound interpretive practices. “[W]hen the soul uses the instrumentality of the body for any inquiry, whether through sight or hearing or any other sense – because using the body implies using the senses – it is drawn away by the body into the realm of the variable, and loses its way and becomes confused and dizzy, as though it were fuddled, through contact with things of a similar nature” (1963:62). No one should trust knowledge compromised by the “contamination of the body,” nor should any philosophically-minded knower mind parting with the body when his time is up, for body as soma (flesh) is ultimately indistinguishable from the body as sema (entombment), which is why Socrates facing death calmly takes his poison as pharmakon (medicine) that once and for all will set his soul free from its corporeal body-prison (Plato 1963:64-65).
We find a similar attitude toward body and emotion in the Stoic thinkers who insisted that “reason itself, entrusted with the reins, is only powerful as long as it remains insulated from the affection. . . . Once the intellect has been stirred up and shaken out, it becomes the servant of the force which impels it” (Seneca 1995:25). The same concern animates the rationalist claim that the human agent is “a substance the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body” (Descartes 1955:101). The prejudice against body and affect is evident in Kant’s insistence that “[t]o be subject to emotions and passions is probably always an illness of mind because both emotions and passion exclude the sovereignty of reason” and in his commitment to the principle of “moral apathy” according to which “the prudent man must at no time be in a state of emotion, not even in that of sympathy with woes of his best friend, [such] is an entirely correct and sublime moral principle of the Stoic school because emotion makes one (more or less) blind” (Kant 1978:155, 174).
Such a fastidious attitude toward the corporeal and the affective has clear implications for hermeneutics, which finds itself stirred toward the meaning uncontaminated by mundane confusions, transparent to all rational minds, and impervious to corrosive doubt. Spinoza, who paid much attention to the role of affect in ethical life, articulated with admirable clarity the rationalist hermeneutics’ concern for logically purified meaning exemplified by Euclid’s geometry. The latter “can easily be comprehended by anyone in any language; we can follow his intentions perfectly, and be certain of his true meaning. . . . We need make no researches concerning the life, the pursuit, or the habits of the author; nor need we inquire in what language, nor when he wrote, nor vicissitudes of his book, nor its various readings, nor how, nor by whose advice it has been received” (Spinoza 1909:113). This logocentric perspective persisted well into the 20th century, as evident in Frege’s identification of meaning with “logical sense” (Frege 1970) and Husserl’s differentiation between “noema” and “noesis” (Husserl 2001), through Saussure’s distinction between “linguistic structure and speech” (Saussure 1986) and Levi-Strauss’s application of the binary linguistic codes to myth (Levy-Strauss 1963), and all the way to Gadamer’s conflation of meaning with “what is fixed in writing” (Gadamer 1982:354), Ricoeur’s refocusing of hermeneutics on the “distanciation by which a new being-in-the-world, projected by the text, is freed from the false evidence of everyday reality” (Ricoeur, 1981:113), and Habermas’s equation of meaning with “propositional content” that has “identical meanings for different users” and lends itself to an unambiguous “true-false” adjudication (Habermas 1998:10-13).
The desire to ban body and affect from interpretive practice does not guarantee that rationalist thinkers freed themselves from their pernicious influence. The very passion with which rationalists affirm their commitment to logos begs the question. As William James (1956:63-72) astutely noted, philosophers with a logocentric bias display a peculiar “sentiment of rationality,” “the craving for rationality,” the ardent desire to make “the concrete chaos rational,” “fuse the manifold into a single totality,” and “banish puzzle from the universe.” Dispassionate discourse plays here the role of an analgesic alleviating “a very intense feeling of distress,” bringing about “a certain pleasure,” and engendering the “peace of rationality.” This passionate resistance to passion may have something to do with the world the rationalists inhabited, the world that was neither rational nor sane. Just think about Socrates condemned to death by the Athenian authorities, Seneca forced to commit suicide by the Emperor Nero, Spinoza excommunicated by his religious community, Descartes fleeing civil war to save his life. . . .
The craving for pure meaning and scientific rationality bears further scrutiny when juxtaposed to the emotional turbulence stirring the rationalists’ lives. Take Immanuel Kant, an unwavering champion of reason for whom murder was supreme injustice and human dignity the highest value. This is the same man who inveighed against “the disgrace of an illegitimate child [whose] destruction can be ignored” (Kant 1980:106), urged a woman facing sexual assault “to give up her life rather than dishonor humanity in her own person” (Kant 1996:178-179), and condemned masturbation and homosexuality as crimen carnis contra naturaem rivaling in insidiousness crimes against humanity (Kant 1980:124). Hardly dispassionate, the tone in which Kant discusses these issues is bordering on shrill.
Now consider Karl Marx’s disdain for bourgeois morality, his commitment to universal brotherhood and scientific rationality, and cross-reference these enlightened ideations with their progenitor’s flesh and blood speech acts. Marx the man refused to acknowledge paternity of a child he sired with his housekeeper, declining to meet his son even after his wife’s death. The founder of the First International enthusiastically supported his buddy Engels’s ranting about the inferiority of Slavic people whom the “coming world war will cause . . . to disappear from the face of the earth.” With merry abandon he hurled racial epithets at his rival, Ferdinand Lassalle, calling him “the little kike,” “water-polack Jew,” “Jew Braun,” “Barron Izzy,” and opined about his son-in-law running for a municipal office that “[b]eing in his quality as a nigger a degree nearer to the animal kingdom than the rest of us, he is undoubtedly the most appropriate representative of that district [which happened to house a city zoo]” (quoted in Weil, 1979:245, 23, 22). The crying gap between Marx’s theoretical commitments and his recorded actions adds a new wrinkle to his life’s project.
Such examples are not meant to denigrate the rational procedures guiding our quest for knowledge, nor do they obviate the need to rein in emotions threatening to overload an inquiry. The point of this exercise it to illuminate rationalism’s blind spots, its proponents’ failure to apply their principles to themselves, as well as to furnish a backdrop against which we can better understand the somatic-affective underpinnings of interpretive practice and the embodied nature of reason central to pragmatist philosophy. Pragmatists resolutely eschew the “hypostatization of cognitive behavior” (Rorty 1982:201). According to Peirce (1976:xxi), “reasoning has no monopoly of the process of generalization,” “[s]entiment also generalizes itself.” Consciousness, for pragmatists, “is only a very small and shifting portion of experience” which belongs to a far larger “universe of nonreflectional experience of our doings, sufferings, enjoyments of the world and of one another” (Dewey 1916:6, 9). “Reason, anyway, is a faculty of secondary rank . . . Cognition is but the superficial film of the soul, while sentiment penetrates its substance” (Peirce 1976:xxi). “’Reason’ as a noun signifies a happy cooperation of a multitude of dispositions, such as sympathy, curiosity, cooperation, exploration, experimentation, frankness, pursuit – to follow things through – circumspection, to look about at the context, etc., etc. . . . Rationality, once more is not a force to evoke against impulse and habit. It is the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires” (Dewey 1950:198, 195-196). When pragmatists talk about reason, they make sure to link it to desire; where cognition comes to the fore, the subtext is affect; and if mindful conduct is thematized, you can be certain that the specter of the body is rising in the wings: “Mental processes imply not only mind but that somebody is minding” (Mead 1938:69). “The mother minds her baby; she cares for it with affection. Mind is care in the sense of solicitude, anxiety, as well as of active looking after things that need to be tended” (Dewey 1958:263).
These philosophical intuitions have been vindicated in recent studies by sociologically-minded brain researchers working in the field alternatively called “neurosociology,” “neurocognitive sociology,” “ethnoneurology,” and “pragmatist neuroscience” (Brothers 1997; Massey 2001; Franks and Thomas Smith 1999; Franks and Ling 2002). The inquiry into bodily sources of reasoning has furnished evidence that somatic and cognitive processes work in tandem, that reason “arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience,” that the “structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999:4; see also Shalin 1986a, 1992a), and that the “common origins of emotions and intellect demand a conception of intelligence that integrates those mental processes that have been traditionally described as cognitive and those qualities that have been described as emotional, including the sense of self or the ego, the awareness of reality, conscience, the capacity of reflection, and the like. The mind’s most important faculties are rooted in emotional experiences from very early in life. . .” (Greenspan quoted in Franks and Smith 1997:119).
These momentous developments call for a fresh look at hermeneutics as a theoretical discipline and a fully embodied practice.
The Project of Pragmatist Hermeneutics
What is pragmatist hermeneutics? In keeping with the traditional agenda (Bruns 1992; Ferraris 1996; Gadamer 1982; Ricoeur 1981; Shalin 1986b), pragmatist hermeneutics focuses on meaning, on discourse products, but it does so in the pragmatist spirit, i.e., it broadens the notion of meaning beyond its familiar identification with linguistic intent and logical sense to include affective narrative, body work, and behavioral performances. Pragmatist hermeneutics builds on Charles Peirce’s precept that “the ultimate meaning of any sign consists either of . . . feeling or of acting or being acted upon” (Peirce, 1931-1935:5.7). There is more to meaning than conceptual signification; the latter must be situated alongside feelings, sentiments, actions – nonlinguistic interpretants which go beyond symbolicity and have the power to signify through their iconicity and indexicality. Iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs are vital links in the semiotic chain (Peirce 1991:239-240, 249-252; 270). When this chain is broken, when its links are no longer interlocked, the meaning process shows strain, and so does a larger social formation where this semiotic process is embedded.
The pragmatist emphasis on feeling and action runs contrary to Saussurean semiotics which privileges linguistic codes and reduces meaning to the play of difference between linguistic signs (Saussure, 1959; Derrida 1974:30-44). Saussure warned us that “in a language there are only differences” and these differences are between units internal to the linguistic structure, i.e., “between sound patterns (e.g. père vs. mere), or between ideas (e.g. ‘father’ vs. ‘mother’)” (Saussure 1989:118-119). For all his critique of Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida remains locked in the theoretical space of structural linguistics, and his equivocal acknowledgement that “Saussure opens the field of general grammatology” (Derrida 1974:43) has more truth to it than Derrida is ready to concede. Nor is his gesture toward Peircean semiotics – “Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of transcendental signified” (Derrida 1974:49) – convincing, for the founder of deconstruction does not square off with the distinct character of various interpretants crucial to Peirce, assimilating instead all sign types to linguistic signifiers. Pragmatist semiotics, by contrast, works with iconic and indexical signs as well as their symbolic counterparts, and it holds the interplay between these embodied signifiers and linguistic symbols to be constitutive of meaning. The tension between logical-symbolic, bodily-emotional, and behavioral-performative interpretants is key to the pragmatist inquiry into signifying practices. Pragmatist hermeneutics stipulates that every sign has a body, that its corporeality matters, that the flesh of the sign interpolates its meaning, and that the signs of the flesh are what we must look for to understand signifying acts in their embodied richness.
In many ways this pragmatist precept is common sense. What Peirce advises us to do is to consider linguistic signs in the larger context of human practice, align verbal claims with embodied actions. The pragmatist maxim stipulates that each pragmatically meaningful term must set forth empirical indices bearing on overt conduct and engendering practical consequences; some total of such consequences exhausts the concept’s meaning (Peirce 1955:23-41). When empirical indicators comprising meaning work at cross purpose, we are forced to reexamine what and how we mean. There are sign-symbols, sign-indexes, and sign-icons, which sometimes mesh and sometimes get in each other’s way. The interplay of these signs constitutes meaning in its embodied fullness. Considered from the pragmatist perspective, the hermeneutic process consists in the ongoing triangulation that allows the interpreter to check a particular sign against other sign types and ascertain their (mis)alignment at any particular point in time.
It might be useful to distinguish three basic types of the signifying media available to pragmatist hermeneutics: (1) the symbolic-discursive, (2) the somatic-affective, and (3) the behavioral-perfromative. Each signifying media is marked by a special relationship between signs and their objects.
The symbolic interpretants include direct speech, verbal accounts, written communications, fictional writing, acoustic and nonpictorial visual signs – all markers that signify by virtue of a convention, a designated code. Thus, the word “love” designates a particular state of mind and body, swastika represents fascism, a war medal vouches for its holder’s valor, yet none of these symbols have a necessary physical connection between the sign’s body and its agreed-upon meaning.
The somatic indices encompass emotional indicators, facial expressions, neurochemical processes, hormonal outlays, dreams and various bodily states. The relationship between indexical signs and their objects is marked by a certain compulsion; there is a dynamic force, Peirce (1991:239-240) tells us, that binds this kind of sign to its object, with the index sign more or less directly partaking in the life of its object. Such is the relationship between smoke and fire, the weathervane and the wind, the thermometer and the temperature, the blushing and the embarrassment – the body of the sign is physically, or as Peirce would say “energetically,” linked to the object it stands for.
The behavioral-performative signs refer to acts, deeds, habits – behavior insofar as it constitutes a role performance and establishes an iconic relationship of resemblance or likeness between the deed in question and a role model. Behavioral-performative signs are related to their objects through the agent’s will that redeems a self-claim pragmatically through a string of actions that vouch for person’s social qualities or underscore their absence. Helping a disabled person reads as a compassionate deed, volunteering for a tour of duty signals patriotism, regular attendance at your child’s baseball games testify to committed parenting, refusal to return borrowed money to the rightful owner suggests dishonesty – such behavioral-performative signs have an iconic dimension insofar as they hark back to a prototype, invoke a cultural model which they resemble to a variable extent.
No bright line separates the interpretants comprising each signifying media – this distinction is largely analytical. Social behavior is a compound sign that mixes symbolic, indexical, and iconic elements which routinely shade into each other within the context of daily interactions. Thus, words have an illocutionary force of a deed when a person enunciates “I do” in a wedding ceremony or swears “I promise” while making a pledge. Verbal insults hint at an emotional state, eyes rolled behind somebody’s back communicate exasperation, and a kiss on the forehead acquires symbolic value as a token of affection. Context determines the semiotic status of signifiers undergoing change across space and time, as attention shifts back and forth between the nondiscursive properties of discourse and discursive aspects of nondiscursive practices. By focusing on the trimedia, pragmatist hermeneutics enjoins us to explore the word-body-action nexus – something we can do only if we contemplate the full range of significant events, with meaning conceptualized as an emergent artifact that is historically constituted, interactionally sustained, and situationally reinterpreted. The task is to comprehend how various sign types complement each other and watch for inconsistencies and contradictions in the agent’s semiotic output. Understood pragmatically, meaning is a multi-media event open to an ongoing revision rather than a Platonic idea or Frege’s sense inherent in the symbolic structure and independent from its mundane interpretations.
In the past, the U.S. Constitution was deemed to be compatible with slavery, racism, ethnic discrimination, economic monopoly, limited political suffrage – none of these readings have survived the test of time. New interpretations continuously emerge on the hermeneutical horizons of the U.S. constitutional history. Rather than assuming that any one reading is authentic, irrefutably compelling, true to the framers’ intent, or (which is the same thing) is the property of the text, pragmatists take the totality of its practical interpretations and embodied renderings as encompassing the Constitution’s meaning at any given point in the US history (Holmes 1992; Shalin 2005). The past interpretations lay out precedent-samples that guide agents seeking to instantiate a given universal in concrete situations or predict the court’s holding in a particular case. As the hermeneutical horizons within which the concepts are interpreted expand, the hermeneutical resources of society are mobilized, the interpretive skills of its agents activated, the new readings challenge the established order. Novel interpretations are apt to focus on the contradictions in familiar signifying chains, on the inconsistent biosocial performances of the key players in the established semiotic order. This is where the hermeneutical process becomes biocritical and hermeneutics turns into biocritique.
Biocritique and Biocritical Hermeneutics
Biocritical studies are a part of pragmatist hermeneutics devoted to the investigation of how various historical agents – from Greek sophists and Roman stoics to Nazi era public intellectuals and Soviet dissidents – answered the challenges of their time by forging an identity for themselves and incarnating cherished creeds in their particular biographical circumstances. An offshoot of pragmatist hermeneutics, biocritique differs from zoosemiotics and biosemiotics (Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, 1991) in its emphasis on the interplay between the discursive, affective, and somatic signifying practices, on symbolically mediated behavioral processes conspicuously absent in lower organisms (e.g., in fish extensively studied by biosemioticians), or present only in a rudimentary fashion (e.g., in proto-sapient primates studied by ethologists). Biosocial semiotics is an exercise in pragmatist hermeneutics that examines symbolic systems by systematically linking the agent’s symbolic corpus to its emotional-behavioral output. This can be a body of fiction, an ideological creed, a theoretical program – any conventional semiotic product found in society whose meaning is interpreted not only from the standpoint of logical coherence and discursive intent but also in light of nondiscursive practices embedded in the author’s life. Affective ambivalence and behavioral non-sequiturs are as central to biocritical inquiry as discursive contradictions and grammatical inconsistencies.
The biocritical approach does pretty much the same thing as standard biographical accounts, except that it frames the Greek bios – life – in the broadest possible sense and pays close attention to the discrepancies between theoretical corpus and biographical corpus. Biocritical hermeneutics explores bios theoretikos and bios philosophicus, i.e., life informed by principles and principles embodied in life. The inquiry centers on the manner in which historical agents integrate their vita activa, vita contemplativa, and vita voluptuosa, with the authorial discourse systematically examined in light of the author’s bodily, emotional, and behavioral production. Biocritical inquiry samples the agent’s discursive tokens, emotional markers, bodily indicators, ingrained habits, and discrete acts in an attempt to figure out how they hang together, what a given theoretical precept means in practical terms. Surveying the semiotic continuum, one zeros in on the breaks in the agent’s semiotic production, the ever-changing gap between words, emotions, and deeds. Selfhood sheds here its appearance as an incorrigible identity, while human agency reveals itself as a stochastic phenomenon marked by indeterminacy, creativity, and hubris – just as Michell Montaigne saw it some four hundred years ago:
. . . [A]ny one who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. . . . Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending on some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal – I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is DISTINGUO (Montaigne 1987:377).
Pragmatist hermeneutics is built on the premise that the pragmatic-discursive misalignment is an ontological condition. No matter how hard we try to practice what we preach, we find ourselves in situations where our deeds do not match our words, where our affective indices are at cross-purpose with our verbal stance.
Mother Theresa was a very kind person, but once on a blue moon she could slap her nun, and once or twice a lifetime she might really lose it and slap her associate in the face.
Or else, we may deliver more than we promise, more than anybody had reason to expect, surprising ourselves in the process.
Once in a while, even the dictator Saddam Hussein could make a generous gesture. Exceptional as such out-of-character enselfments might be, they are not inconsequential, they require us to track the flesh of a sign and follow the sign of the flesh.
It is the mark of ethical life that we not only try to resolve discursive contradictions but also track emotional ambivalence and behavioral non-sequiturs, and then seek to realign our verbal attitudes with our emotional posture and overt conduct. When we fail to bring our discursive-symbolic corpus in line with our behavioral-affective indicators, we are reminded about the inconsistencies across the signifying media and the need to work harder in bodying forth our discourse.
Embodied Agency and the Economy of Signification
Take a routine speech act in which we focus on the speaker’s verbal intent and try to figure out what the interlocutor has in mind. As we come to terms with a stated meaning, we also listen carefully to the voice, to its illocutionary thrust, and watch for translocutionary signs, eager to grasp the mind as a totality of the agent’s mindings. “I love you” is a string of characters in English language that triggers in the person for whom the words are intended certain attitudes and expectations. These are verbal tokens waiting to be redeemed in the flesh. It matters how the love is professed, what the body posture says, whether the agent’s voice trembles or evinces signs of irony. One wants to make sure that discursive tokens of affection are reinforced by emotional offerings, that the body indicia vouchsafe for the words of love. We know what it means to “talk the talk” and to “walk the walk.” This dyad is incomplete, however, without the third leg – “to rock the rock.” Those unwilling or unable to sweat it out, to assume a proper bodily stance and generate a believable affective display, risk having their performances doubted. By professing love, we open the hermeneutical horizons onto the future and imply certain lines of conduct which can redeem discursive tokens in the flesh and practically validate emotional displays. You better know how to swoon and sway if you wish your love declaration to mean pragmatically what it signifies discursively, and when your relevant body indicia point in the wrong direction, your love proclamations will leave something to be desired.
Steven Gordon (1990:154) suggests that body arousal is not required for an emotion. This valid point threatens to obscure the invaluable contribution that somatic markers make to ascertaining emotionally-charged significations. When Claude Raines, a police inspector from the movie “Casablanca,” walks into Rick’s joint and says, “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on here!”, we know he does not really mean it because the discourse work is not matched by somatic performances or reflected in the inspector’s subsequent deeds. The practical interpretive process scans the entire word-body-action arc, ascertaining the alignment between symbolic, indexical, and iconic signs.
Action-qua-role performance mobilizes all three signifying media: it entails a symbolic code, a somatic-affective display, and a behavioral-agentic performance. Behavior is iconic insofar as the typical course of action it follows “resembles” (in the Peircean sense of the word) a role model performance expected in a given culture under certain circumstances. Like a moving picture, proper social behavior exhibits likeness to its prototype. The fewer the points of similarity between the presented behavioral icon and a culturally-certified role model, the weaker the agent’s claim to a given selfhood. Words, emotions, and actions each signify in their special ways, forcing us to watch closely how the discursive, the affective, and the behavioral signs coalesce into a whole. Both as interpreters and as performers, human agents continuously triangulate the signifying markers, check for the (mis)alignment across the signifying media, and look for breaks in the semiotic chain casting shadow on the true meaning of agent’s words. These gaps are rarely absent; they keep reemerging, resurfacing, straining the fragile semiotic chains that bind us into a social whole, all the while reminding us that the pragmatic-discursive misalignment is at the heart of the human condition.
Our emotional experience is sedimented in the soma; it leaves traces in the body circuits and manifests itself in the functional brain networks, the hormonal equilibrium, the neurochemical balances, the affective structures, persistent moods and mood disorders. The sociological theory sensitive to the corporeal dimension of the social order cannot confine itself to the imprints that culture makes on its normative, discursive byproducts but must look for the characteristic signatures that culture leaves on the human body through which human agency signs itself in the flesh (Bourdieu 1990, 1984). The historically situated agency mobilizes the semiotic resources of the body, integrates them into a corporeal selfhood, and thereby reproduces the social order in the process that continuously loops onto itself. The physiological machinery is set in motion to assure the agent strikes a proper attitude, the body indicia vouchsafe the affective stance called for by the situation, the verbal narrative grounds the body posture in the appropriate discourse, and overt behavior reinforces the assumed emotional stance through a line of action amenable to further discursive and affective validation. Human agency achieves its goal when the principal signifying practices – discourse work, body work, and action work – operate in concert to produce a selfhood the agent can legitimately claim its own in the situation at hand. This identity does not automatically transcend the situation; it is good until further notice, and it must be reconstituted with every new encounter.
Affect and Action as Vital Links in the Semiotic Chain
Now picture the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, a one-time crusader against filth in America. His message had an explicit discursive content – prostitution, pornography, sex outside marriage are loathsome acts violating Christian teachings. This message was delivered in a strenuous fashion, the speaker’s voice evincing the powerful affect the subject evoked in his body. You could sense the agent’s wet-wiring swinging into high gear: the man’s blood pressure rising, the adrenaline surging through his body, the feelings amplified by the powerful feedback from the live audience and millions more watching his histrionics on national TV. The outward emotions functioned here as indices, biosocial signs simultaneously conveying emotional intensity and the message’s social import. The fleshed-out image the speaker communicated to the audience served as an icon exemplifying the lofty role of a committed preacher the agent sought to impersonate.
As it turned out, Jimmy Swaggart did not practice what he preached. While he was exhorting Americans to cleanse themselves from sexual filth, Swaggart was patronizing prostitutes. When the truth came out, urgent steps had to be taken to bridge the gap between the discursive self and its profane incarnations. At first, we were lead to believe that the alleged sexual acts with prostitutes did not happen. Then, one could have inferred from the explanations proffered that this man of the cloth was visiting with prostitutes to save their immortal souls. Finally, Jimmy Swaggart broke down and reverted to the tried and true: “The devil made me do it.”
Most would agree that it is none of our business what people do in their private lives with other consenting adults – except when they take a public stance against the practices they carry out in private.
Rev. Ted Huggard, senior pastor of New Life Church, opposed gay marriage and expressed doubt if gays have a place in the world to come. But when he was exposed as an unfaithful husband and someone practicing nonconventional sexuality, he was instantly reminded about his book, Foolish No More, where he warned his followers that “lying about a sexual affair produces ‘the stinking garbage of a rotten sin’ and that ‘if a church leader sins . . . everyone within the church’s influence pays” (Goodstein 2006:A22). And when Günter Grass belatedly revealed to his stunned compatriots that as a young man he served in the Hitler’s army, he had to account for the gap between his current and former selves: “This teacher of generations of young Germans, who taught them to ask freely at home, ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?” failed to obey his own injunction!” (Gay 2006:A24). As such inconsistencies come to life, repair work gets under way. Patching the misalignment between discourse and body work requires tinkering with both sides of the equation – the linguistic stance and its pragmatic renderings. This is a standard strategy deployed in such situations: We offer discursive tokens redeemable in the flesh and perform deeds amenable to discursive validation, and all along “give” and “give off” emotions called for by the situation (Goffman 1959:32-51) as a running commentary on the ever-changing gap between our words and deeds. Emotions are bodily indices that let us know when mind is out of joint with its mindings.
To be sure, we can separate the pragmatically-rendered self from the discursive claims to a particular selfhood, the meaning of what Jimmy Swaggart was saying from the practical significance of what he was doing outside the glare of TV cameras. While this standard practice suffices for many purposes, glossing over the pragmatic output shortcircuits the interpretive process and impoverishes the hermeneutical resources available to us in everyday life. Pragmatist hermeneutics bids us to treat mind’s discursive offerings as tokens or verbal claims waiting to be redeemed in the flesh, to be vouchsafed by iconic behavioral performances that replicate in deed a symbolic chain the agent inserts itself in or sets in motion. Such a pursuit of meaning encompasses the semiotic life of the entire body, its voice as well as its discourse. Voice contrives to turn our attention away from itself toward the intended conceptual meaning, but it is hardly a neutral carrier indifferent to the encoded message. We take special care to track both voice and discourse, intonation and reference, significant and nonsignificant gestures. Having mastered communication based on intentional signifying acts, humans did not loose their capacity or need to interpret unencoded gestures and unscripted enselfments, which furnish an invaluable context for our linguistic behavior (Mead, 1934; Shalin 2000). Pragmatist hermeneutics grasps communication in its totality, as an embodied semiotic event whose constituent parts are separable only in abstraction. The semiotic chain signifies conceptually as well as corporeally, its tonal substance bearing on its ideational content.
We may say that voice is silently present in every discourse; the two carry on a dialogue, constantly reminding us that every sign has a body which no discursive efforts can completely efface. This dialectic of voice and discourse is central to pragmatist hermeneutics as a hermeneutics of historically corporealized agency and to biocritique as a study of live semiotic chains. The focus is on signifying (intentionally communicative) and asignifying (unintentionally meaningful) acts that form a semiotic chain comprised of verbal symbols, emotional displays, body language, neurophysiological processes, behavioral forays, dissimulative gambits, immediate consequences, and long-term unanticipated outcomes. The rhetoric of “unconscious” comes in handy here, as it explicitly thematizes the nondiscursive properties of discourse and illuminates the discursive-pragmatic misalignment. We should note that Freudian and pragmatist hermeneutics have a certain affinity, especially when it comes to ambivalence as a sign of conflicted agency, although the psychoanalytic craving for “depth” wedded to “reductionist” methodology and privileging of sexual affect over other somatic-affective indices are inimical to the pragmatist interest in phenomena insofar as they come to the surface and embody themselves in overlaying signs. “Depth” can be a shallow metaphor we resort to when we get impatient with the bewildering array of surfaces vying for our attention. Hence, the present undertaking can be called “surface hermeneutics.”
The pragmatist perspective on meaning brings into sharp focus a special role that our feelings, sentiments, and emotionally charged narratives play in forging semiotic chains. It is sensitive to emotional overtones signaling behavioral proclivities enciphered in discursive products. In this respect, pragmatists follow Spinoza the ethicist with his keen awareness of body affections rather than Spinoza the metaphysician with his craving for logically immaculate meaning. As Spinoza pointed out in his Ethics, emotion is a substance that diminishes or increases our capacity for action: “By Emotion (affectus) I understand the modification of the body by which the power of action in the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these modifications” (Spinoza 1910:84-85). Ideas, according to Spinoza, are emotionally charged and emotions are discursively framed. Looked at from this angle, bodies poised for action are affectively wound; the emotions they evince serve as clues to the kind of selfhood one is apt to body forth. Emotions are bound to the corporeal and ideational processes, serving as their virtual indexes waiting to be eventualized. Emotions signal that things are getting personal, that stakes are rising, that body circuits are activated, that one may be forced to take a stance, that behavioral options are being considered, evaluated, aborted, tried out and acted upon.
Affective reason does not have much respect for the boundaries set by pure reason; it is more sensitive to the demands of practical reason, but the latter has to pay heed to emotions, lest the latter overwhelm the agent’s moral resolve. Emotions are nondiscursive narratives, exquisitely expressive means through which primates sign in the flesh their motions to themselves and to others. The agent attuned to its own ambivalence will not be content to straddle discourse but will ride an emotion toward a fresh narrative and alternative paradigmizations. Affective narratives are only partially accessible to consciousness; the experienced onlookers may glean emotional stirrings which escape the agent’s control and self-reflection and which furnish valuable insights into the life of meaning. Bodyminding eludes the agent’s “I,” which grasps its mindings indirectly and retrospectively through its “Me’s” objectified in various products and reflected in other agents’ reactions (Mead 1934).
With the groundwork in place, I now turn to specific domains where the project of pragmatist hermeneutics offers a potentially fruitful line of inquiry and furnish a few examples of biocritical hermeneutics.
Postmodernism as Discourse and Embodied Practice
An intriguing feature of the postmodern discourse is its proponents’ tendency to dissolve existence into discourse, into a never ending play of linguistic differences where material effects evaporate, affect is repressed, and simulation reigns supreme. With the notable exception of Michel Foucault, the pioneers of postmodernism picture human agents as talking heads who relate to the world and their fellow human beings primarily through the symbolic media. However, the deconstructive flight from corporeality into disembodied textuality does not mean that the interpreter escapes the siren voice of the flesh. Like their rationalist counterparts, postmodernist writings are dripping with raw emotionality and extratextual references.
Consider Gilles Deleuze’s memories about his college years, his reminiscences about classical philosophy and the hard time he had with mastering the masters. Here is a colorful excerpt in which Deleuze communicates his feelings about the likes of Plato and Hegel: “What got me by during that period was conceiving of the history of philosophy as a kind of assf[--]k, or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception. I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:x). Here is another passage, a prescription that Deleuze and Guattari offer on how to become what they call “body without organs” or “masochistic body [that] has its sadist or whore sew it up; the eyes, the anus, urethra, breasts, and nose are sewn up. It has itself strung up to stop the organs from working; flayed, as if the organs clung to the sin; sodomized, smothered, to make sure everything is sealed up” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:150). Whatever their propositional content, such statements are notable primarily for their nondiscursive properties. This is the text rich in affective markers; it stands out by its raw iconicity that breathes emotional cruelty disguised as playfulness and sarcasm. The metaphors are starkly corporeal, the verbal tokens are laden with violent sentiments lurking just beneath the discursive veneer.
Affectively charged metaphors leap from the pages of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy where the author renounces “terror” as a form of organized repression but cheerfully embraces random “violence” as an expression of unfettered political creativity. Having denounced “critique as imperialism and theory as racism,” Lyotard hails “red cruelty [which] destroy[s] instantiated appropriations, powers” (Lyotard 1993:114) and heaps scorn on Marx, who makes his appearance in this text as “the Old Man,” “a young woman,” and “a stray bisexual assemblage” (Lyotard 1993:96). This rhetorical figure of abuse is striking for a postmodernist who began his carrier as a radical left-wing intellectual and then shunned his youthful Marxism without shedding the affective baggage of militant radicalism. Instructive is also the fact that the accolades once reserved for Marx, Lenin, and Mao, the pioneers of postmodernism are apt to shower on the Marquis de Sade.
The references to Sade are common in the postmodernist discourse. He is treated reverentially as a daring intellectual who envisioned “profoundly egalitarian institutions of pleasure” (Lyotard 1993:114, 104). The man is somewhat of a patron saint to French postmodernists who find in his honest cruelties a healthy antidote to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern society. Although postmodernist writers avidly dissect the Marquis de Sade’s literary corpus, they have little to say about his real life exploits. Yet, this literary giant did not simply imagine his sadistic pleasures; at every opportunity, Sade sought to bring his fantasies to live. You can find this out by placing side by side the depositions that witnesses made at his trials and the pages from his novels (Sade 1953:211-215). This bard of nonconsensual sexuality honestly believed that if you torture your victims physically, sexually, and emotionally, and do so imaginatively enough, they will come to love the torture and the torturer. (I will note in passim that Sade is, arguably, a prototype of modern revolutionaries, all would-be Raskolnikovs whose emotional deformities acquired during the ancien regime were fanned by the revolutionary flames into a full-blown rage replete with homicidal violence, power orgies, and frustrated sexual yearnings). Postmodernists show little interest in the all too real ways in which Sade signed himself in the flesh, in the fact that the Sadean cruelties were more than literary tropes. They reassure us that “[t]he precise object of ‘sadism’ is not the other, neither his body, nor his sovereignty: it is everything that might have been said” (Foucault 1998:96), that “the sole Sadean universe is the universe of his discourse,” which should be treated “according to a principle of tact” (Barthes 1976:36, 170). This indifference flies in the face of Sade’s biography, and it is, in my view, indicative of the postmodernist tendency to suppress corporeality and gloss over the affective-somatic substance.
Michel Foucault, who did not use the label “postmodern” but who is often cited as the postmodern thinker par excellance, is a notable exception in that he gave a prominent place to the flesh in his writings. His perspective on the human body as subjugated flesh illuminates a psychosomatic trauma at the heart of postmodernist discourse. Foucault’s fascination with death, his image of life as an ongoing “suicide orgy,” his paeans to “pure violence” and “the joys of torture,” his avid participation in S & M practices, his opposition to rape laws because “there is, in principle, no difference between sticking one’s fist into someone’s face or one’s penis into their genitalia” (Miller 1993:27, 87, 257) – all these affect-laden references and behaviorally iconic symbolizations make you wonder if the theorist’s bodied existence can be fully detached from his theoretical corpus. What strikes me in Foucault’s verbal imagery is not so much its sexual content, instructive though it is, as its emotional intensity and negative valence. One senses the same fierce negativity and emotional violence in many French postmodernists. Derrida’s polemics against John Searle, collected in the volume Limited, Inc., is a good example.
Whatever validity there is in Derrida’s critique, it is drowned in his sarcastic attitude. Derrida mocks Searle’s name, which he derisively links to an acronym of a French company, and lashes out against the “dangerous dogmatists and tedious obscurantists” who find his deconstructive texts dogmatic and obscure. Here, Derrida engages in that species of symbolic abuse that some French intellectuals have perfected into an art form. His discursive stance packs a powerful illocutionary punch; it is a model case of a speech act that accomplishes something behaviorally significant with words – it administers a calculated insult. Later on, Derrida admitted that his polemics were “not devoid of aggressivity” (Derrida 1988:113), but just as he owned up to “this violence of mine” and professed his aversion to the “brutality” and “violence, political or otherwise, in academic discussions” (Derrida 1988:113, 112), he had unleashed a scathing personal attack on Habermas, accusing him of operating “in the most authoritarian manner” and failing to make “the slightest effort to take cognizance of [Derrida’s works], to read them, or to listen to them” (Derrida 1988:158). What prompted this violent outburst was Habermas’s decision to square off with Derrida’s theories without directly quoting his works, which, according to Habermas, disregard the communicative properties of discourse and make direct quotation pointless.
We have to be cautious reading too much into symbolic violence in the postmodernist discourse. Its practitioners’ discursive and nondiscursive actions form a vast universe featuring diverse metaphors and contradictory enselfments which are to be treated in context and carefully crossreferenced. Thus, Deleuze’s virulent attacks on his intellectual predecessors must be balanced against the reportedly friendly attitudes he showed toward his students. The insulting manner in which Derrida sometimes treats his intellectual opponents is no more indicative of his character than the generosity with which he reached out to his eastern European colleagues in distress. Foucualt’s violent proclivities are no more noteworthy than his work on behalf of prisoners and gays. It would be a mistake, however, to gloss over such awkward episodes, to ignore the rich indexicality and raw iconicity of the postmodernist writing and forfeit an inquiry into the possible link between these agents’ symbolic and corporeal practices, between their discursive output and biographical corpus. By matching discursive and nondiscursive signs, biocritique seeks to illuminate the socio-historical moorings of various discourses and the somatic-affective conditions under which they flourish.
When Michel Foucault strikes across the face the author of a novel featuring an unflattering portrait of a Foucault-like character (Macey 1995:191) or when he goes out of his way to prevent the publication of an article unfavorable to him (Macey 1995:337), he deploys behavioral stratagems that bring to mind his own discourse on power. When Baudrillard (1990:131) blames women for their failure to see that “seduction . . . represents the mastery of the symbolic world” and invites the potential victims to play along and beat men by playing their own game (“Take me into your motel room and . . . screw me!” p. 157), he overlooks the fact that irony, sarcasm, simulations, and other willed figures of non-identity have somatic-affective underpinnings and shows a profound misconception of sexual harassment as a playful act calling for a playful response.
We must pause here and ask whether such queries amount to ad hominem reasoning, whether the theorist’s conduct has no bearing on the theorist’s constructs. Would our understanding of the theory of relativity change if its author, Albert Einstein, turned out to be a moral relativist in his private life, as some biographers have claimed? Hardly. But then, the theory we deal with is social through and through, it presents a stance the theorist takes publicly and invites scrutiny of the claims to a selfhood, which is why the question deserves – demands – a more serious consideration. Michel Foucault addressed this very issue when he urged readers to judge his written output in light of his entire life. This passionate intellectual turned his body into a subject of ongoing investigation, embracing toward the end of his life a creed reminiscent of pragmatism. One year before he died, Foucault gave an interview in which he contended that “at every moment, step by step, one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing,” for the meaning of the thinker’s life “is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his philosophical life, his ethos” (Foucault 1984:374). I take this as an invitation to all those taking Foucault’s project seriously to connect his discursive corpus with his broader pragmatic output – an undertaking central to pragmatist hermeneutics.
Michel Foucault died of AIDS. Although the knowledge about the disease was rather limited then, Foucault knew for some time that he was gravely, perhaps mortally ill, as the rumors about the “gay cancer” spread throughout the gay community (Miller 1993:23-36). To the dismay of his lived-in partner, Foucault did not tell him about his illness until the very end when his condition was impossible to conceal. There are questions as to whether Foucault had continued to pursue casual sexual encounters with anonymous and not so anonymous partners after he realized what fate had in store for him and his lovers (Miller 1995:26-36; Halperin 1995:143-152; Macey 1996:475-476). No doubt, the reality Foucault faced was complex, ethically ambiguous, and we should exercise an abundance of caution before jumping to any conclusions. Pragmatist hermeneutics does not condone zeroing in on pragmatic occasions consistent with a partisan interpretation and glossing over the agent’s incongruent signings. Rather, it tracks the widest amplitude of signification found in a given agent or a group of agents. This is why we have to follow Foucault’s advice and not shy away from examining his biography critically – biocritically, that is – if we want to understand the full import of his life’s project.
Contrary to what postmodernists tell us, the author is not dead, biography matters. Writers do not forget or efface themselves in the act of writing, and when they try to, as Paul de Man did when he assiduously dissimulated his anti-Semitic past, they are reminded, even if only posthumously, that the symbolic media cannot blot out behavioral signs. As we learned after Paul de Man’s death, he had authored dozens of articles in the early 1940’s in which he expressed his contempt for Jews and advocated stamping them out from the face of Europe (Burke 1992:1-2). De Man’s escape into discourse and willed forgetfulness is fully consistent with the agentic-discursive strategy deployed by many postmodernists, beginning with their intellectual precursor, Martin Heidegger, whose discursive stance diverged from his pragmatically rendered agency.
In his signature post-war piece, “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger ( 1977:231, 200) condemned “the blindness and arbitrariness of what is . . . known under the heading of ‘pragmatism’” (231), a species of a broader intellectual malaise Heidegger identified as “humanism.” He spurned pragmatism and humanism because of their proponents’ tendency to equate thinking with the “l’engagement dans l’action” (Heidegger 1977:194, 197), a stance that breeds the “peculiar dictatorship of the public realm.” To counter the humanistic bias, Heidegger urged the human agent to choose a heroic solitude where it turns itself into “the shepherd of Being” and a guardian of “Language [a]s the house of Being” who pursues “the world’s destiny” and “the truth of being” forever denied to practically engaged thought (Heidegger 1977:211, 193, 219, 213).
Heidegger’s disquisitions are thought-provoking, riveting at times. Yet, there is something of a reaction formation in his strenuous opposition to politically engaged life. Heidegger’s verbiage would make better sense were it not for the fact that his exhortations are conspicuously at odds with his hyper-activist past as a fascist intellectual and Nazi functionary. Heidegger’s veneration of thinking (“Thinking towers over action”) and his appeal to memory (“Being is entrusted to recollection”) underscore his abject failure to think through and recollect his own public engagement during the Nazi era – paeans to Hitler, tacit endorsement of book burning, willingness to inform on his colleagues, the pointed refusal to renounce or even to acknowledge the Holocaust (Wolin, 1991; Shalin 1992b, 2004b). Like de Man’s theory of writing as forgetting, Heidegger’s programmatic anti-humanism and anti-pragmatism appear in a different light when placed in the historical context and aligned with his practical actions.
A closer look at the postmodernists’ practices suggests that their symbolic utterances are rich in indexical-affective reference, that their emotionally-charged discourse morphs into behavioral performances just as their affectively-charged deeds are encrypted in their texts. Derrida’s seemingly detached analysis of John Searle’s speech act theory amounts to a violent deed calculated to deliver a symbolic blow (Searle had refused to discuss Derrida ever since). Lyotard’s virulent attack on Karl Marx has all the agentic-affective markings of a true believer (Mao Tse Tung took Marx’s place in Lyotard’s pantheon). The carnal imagery embedded in Deleuze’s reminiscences about rival thinkers hint at a poisonous experience of growing up within the French academia (a system notorious for its intellectual snobbery and ritualized abuse). Styling human conduct as an interminable simulation raises questions about Baudrillard’s tendency to gloss over the somatic-affective cost of our actions (one wonders if Baudrillard is familiar with sexual harassment first hand). Foucault’s contempt for modernity, which he juxtaposes to the more tolerant ways of yesteryear, takes on an added meaning when judged against his programmatic celebration of tormented flesh (consider from this angle an excruciatingly detailed description of Damiens’ death by torture in Discipline and Punish). Heidegger and de Man proved themselves superior intellects, yet some of the discursive coins they brought into circulation – “recollection,” “forgetfulness of being,” “writing as self-effacement” – are hardly redeemable at face value given these agents’ incarnate lives. The stakes in the game of meaning are high; we are all inexorably drawn into this game as we make discursive self-claims and redeem them in the flesh, and the best way to approach this game is in the spirit of pragmatism.
The framers of postmodernism like to talk about “absence,” “simulation,” “fictitious presence,” and disclaim references to reality beyond discourse. Judged from the emotional indicators permeating their texts and the material traces their actions have left, something appears to be lurking in the interstices of the postmodernist discourse, something tangible and real, a presence that refuses to go away. I sense here strong feelings and strenuous bodywork with which the harbingers of postmodernism are not always in touch, the body-language games that remain undertheorized. This is why I propose to complement the postmodernist notion of “simulacrum” with the pragmatist concept of “dissimulacrum.”
If simulacrum is a copy masquerading as reality, then dissimulacrum is reality pretending to be a fiction. A simulator claims something to be there when it is not, a dissimulator pretends that there is nothing when there is something. The former wishes to pass one’s mask for a face, the latter intimates that his is merely a mask. One is busy feigning enthusiasm and constructive activity, while the other rushes to dissemble pesky corporealities overloading the speaker’s emotional circuits. One fakes total presence, the other feigns total absence, and each conceals and suppresses its affective-somatic being. In short, the two are twins: the simulator always dissimulates just as the dissimulator simulates; theirs is a sibling rivalry, the one can hardly do the job without the other, as they continue to pretend that they pretend or that they don’t. Culture does not so much lose its body in these exercises as it whittles down its emotionally-laden substance and masks its all too real affective-somatic deformities
(Shalin 1993) .
Like any historical movement, postmodernism has been bodied forth by disparate individuals who were often at odds with each other, pursued different political agendas, and left in their wake institutions, programs, and texts of vastly different quality. We should resist the urge to lump them together and disparage their still evolving project. The strength of postmodernism is in its proponents’ ear for ideological cant and power considerations behind discursive production. Its weakness lies in the tendency to privilege the symbolic signifying media, neglect the corporeal forms of signification, and gloss over their own embodied agency and its socio-historical underpinnings. It is my belief that the early postmodernists and their intellectual forerunners sought to escape from historical trauma into a disembodied discourse, that their infatuation with sadism and penchant for violence constitute a willful gloss over the corporeal memories tormenting these historical agents condemned to live through the all too real horrors and assorted gulags of the 20th century.
Pragmatist Hermeneutics and Ethics of Embodiment
“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (Nietzsche, 1966:13). This bold statement draws attention to its author’s life, to the relationship between his discursive and nondiscursive significations. As Nietzsche’s biography suggests, this relationship is anything but straightforward. The man who may have never known a woman in the biblical sense, who “derived his intimate knowledge of the female sex from hearsay only” (Kohler 2002:73), solemnly endorsed a maxim, “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!” (Nietzsche, 1938:70). A notorious social climber who craved academic prestige and failed in his professional aspirations, Nietzsche would come to renounce such worldly pursuits and resentment they breed, finding solace in philosophical musings about illustrious Zaratustra, “blond beasts” and “triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a student’s prank” (Nietzsche 1966:40). Should we pass in silence his confessions about the “terrible mixture of lust and cruelty which was always for me ‘the witch’s potion” (Nietzsche, quoted in Kohler, 2002:72)?
This is exactly what Heidegger urges Nietzsche scholars to do: “What we must do is turn away from Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the author, inasmuch as these are fields that lie within a context of human dimension” (Heidegger, quoted in Kohler, 2002:xvii) – strange advice, given Nietzsche’s insistence on the biographical nature of thought. But then, we need not endorse Nietzsche’s interpretive strategies that reduce hermeneutics to “the exercise of suspicion” aimed at reality disguised under pretentious appearances (Ricoeur, 1978:214). Nietzsche’s genealogical analysis is premised on the notion that thinking is but a subterfuge for the “will to power,” that primordial drives propelling our thinking can be unearthed if we follow proper hermeneutical procedures. Psychoanalysis is another example of what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutic of suspicion” – an interpretive practice that more or less dismisses discursive products as rationalizations whose apparent content conceals their true meaning. Pragmatism parts company with such depth hermeneutics that finds its primary methodological tool in this reductionist suspicion. Nor is it to be confused with the “wild psychoanalysis” (Freud, 1959) exemplified by lay practitioners rushing in their diagnosis where the afflicted need lengthy professional treatment to come to grips with the true significance of their symptoms. Pragmatist hermeneutics offers no cure. It simply opens up the hermeneutical circle wide enough to include alongside discursive tokens the agent’s bodily effects and thereby expands semiotic resources available to the interpreter without assigning a higher dignity to any one signifying media. Sign-symbols, sign-indexes, sign-habits are all real after their fashion; they cannot be reduced to each other or arranged in a hierarchical order. Pragmatist hermeneutics does not pretend to get a hold of reality itself or reveal an authentic character. It gauges an emotionally-laden substance, bears witness to a presence, however fleeting, and highlights the contradictory ways in which we sign ourselves in the world, all along trusting the agents to connect the dots and realign their significations.
Anton Chekhov, a Russian novelist and playwright, is an artist who made much of the fact that our words are all too often at odds with our deeds and at cross-purpose with our emotions. His stage characters incessantly talk about falling in love, taking big steps, making amends, and going places, while they are doing something else – fritter their lives away, betray confidences, commit suicide, or dance all night long to forget about the grim realities waiting for them in the morning. All that against the backdrop of continuous emoting that clues the audience in on the perennial misalignment between the actors’ utterances and deeds. As his diaries and correspondence show, Chekhov was very much aware of the pragmatic-discursive misalignment in his own life, equating a responsible being in the world with the ability to take stock of and realign one’s words, deeds, and feelings – even though such efforts all too often prove futile in the end. It is startling to see how this iconic humanist who urged the Russian intelligentsia to aid cholera-stricken peasants and worked himself tirelessly for the cause confesses to a friend that he felt “utterly indifferent to this disease and the people whom one is compelled to serve” (Chekhov 1977:104). Chekhov’s writing offer an invaluable insight into the historically shaped bodymind of the Russian intelligentsia: its characteristic somatic ailments, bipolar tendencies, emotional volatility, moral maximalism, ironic detachment and sarcastic vigilantism, the perennial disparity between word and deed, the tendency to build castles in the air and sink into hopelessness (Shalin, 1986).
As Dewey (1950:198) pointed out, people focused on discursive production may be sending different messages through their body language and actions: “Men who devote themselves to thinking are likely to be unusually unthinking in some respects, as for example in immediate personal relationships. A man to whom exact scholarship is an absorbing pursuit may be more than ordinarily vague in ordinary matters. Humility and impartiality may be shown in a specialized field, and pettiness and arrogance in dealing with other persons.” The misalignment between our deeds, emotional stirrings, and public pronouncements renders human identity perennially problematic. This programmatic insight nourishes the pragmatist inquiry into embodied significations that seeks to reconstruct the long semiotic chains, pinpointing historical junctures where the cord binding disparate enselfments grows threadbare or breaks entirely. The interpretive process is focused here on the iconic markers, indexical expressions, metaphorical statements, and illocutionary acts embedded in a discourse. Of signal importance are also actions undertaken in line with and in the name of a given discourse, as well as somatic-affective indices that distinguish the standard bearer and the hanger-on. The failure to spell out the pragmatic interpretants of a discursive stance invites scrutiny, as when the Bush administration professes its adherence to the international law prohibiting torture while resolutely refusing to clarify whether “waterbording” counts as an instance of this kind. Such “escape from the pragmatic” (also known as “stonewalling”) will be instantly evident to the interpreter operating within the horizons of pragmatist hermeneutics.
The same goes for the Christian doctrine that exhorts you to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “turn the other cheek,” “submit to the church doctrine,” “walk in Christ’s way.” What exactly do these precepts mean pragmatically? Check the discursive-pragmatic alignment, and you will discover that the Christian crusaders shredded these precepts to pieces during their Jihad against the infidels, as they raped and pillaged all the way to the Holy Land. That did not prevent crusaders from calling themselves “good Christians” and having their actions sanctified by the church. In the 16th century, the Holy Inquisition approved torture as an expedient means to extract confessions from the witches and the unfaithful, conjuring up a macabre visage of a man invoking the name of Jesus as he tightens the screws on a hapless victim. The meaning of Christianity has evolved through the ages, with the violence against Native Americans and the antislavery movement, unbridled capitalism and progressive reforms, rank xenophobia and bold ecumenism receiving a nod from church authorities at one point or another. The pragmatist question of what it means to be a Christian (What would Jesus do?) is as problematic in our times as it has ever been.
The same multivocity is embedded in Marxist discourse. Its favorite shibboleths – “the end to alienation,” “universal brotherhood,” “authentic existence,” “freedom from exploitation,” “economic egalitarianism” – promise a pristine communist world to come. Frame these discursive markers in their 20th century context and you will see that people claiming to be Marxists have relished violence, wasted millions in the gulags, tolerated hidden and not-so-hidden inequality, and abused power in every way imaginable. Mao carried out his cultural revolution under Marxist banners yet enjoyed living in palaces and being catered to by an army of servants, artists, and mistresses. As Marx’s own racist statements suggest, he was very much the man of his age, unable to shed its prejudices as he struggled to expand its hermeneutical horizons. What it means to be a Marxist is the question that continues to yield different answers today.
When Republicans take a stance on counting all the absentee ballots from overseas military personnel while working behind the scenes to invalidate such ballots in predominantly democratic counties, we can spot a semiotic forgery and see through their grandstanding in the Florida presidential election. When Democrats clamor for recounting ballots only in the counties that favor their presidential candidate and maintain a stony silence about potential miscounts elsewhere, they invite a biocritical look at the incongruities between their verbally articulated and extra-discursive postures. When the sworn-to-chastity and committed-to-moral-uplift clergy abuse their charges, the misalignment between their preaching and actions is painfully obvious. The same goes for police using their night sticks for purposes unspecified in their manuals, judges whose court behavior makes mocks the notion of judicious temperament, teachers whose emotional littering vitiates the emotional intelligence they seek to impart to their pupils – the pragmatist imperative of watching how we sign across the signifying media applies to all of us insofar as we conduct an everyday hermeneutical inquiry into our discourse-body-action language games.
It would be ghoulish to take the cruelties committed in Christ’s name as an interpretant of Christianity’s significate value, just as it would be hasty to equate Marxism with human rights violations. There is more to these intellectual currents than witch-hunting and the unbridle pursuit of power, but that is what each signified pragmatically at certain historical junctures. The incarnate actions undertaken in the name of Christianity and Marxism are tethered to their practitioner’s somatic-affective a priori no less than to their discursive-theoretical assumptions. We can debate forever what this or that concept means, how much truth a theory in question has to offer – all such debates, as Marx pointed out in one of his pragmatist passages, would remain “scholastic” as long as they are “isolated from practice” (Marx 1947:197). The meaning of a social theory, a political platform or a federal constitution is ultimately predicated on the embodied actions rather than on logical inquiry (why else would the Supreme Court Justices routinely disagree on what the Constitution means and how it applies to the case on hand?), on the actions that historical agents undertake within the hermeneutical horizons opened up by a theory and tested by collective experimentation.
The strictures of pragmatist hermeneutics apply to pragmatism as well. It is a historical enterprise like any other, championed by fallible agents eager to place their names on its masthead but not always ready, willing, or able to practice what they preach. Nor can we be certain about policy options the pragmatic stance necessitates, as the following statements by signature pragmatist indicate:
Monopolies, such as can be created in our days, are most beneficent for the public [and it is only] the miserable tyranny exercised over the great businessmen [that prevents people from seeing this]” (Peirce, quoted in Kilpinen, 2000:89).
[A]ctual and concrete liberty of opportunity and action is dependent upon equalization of the political and economic conditions under which individuals are alone free in fact, not in some abstract metaphysical way (Dewey 1946:116).
Over the course of its history, pragmatism furnished theoretical ammunition for John Dewey’s socialism, George Mead’s social democratic politics, Sidney Hook’s liberal Marxism, Rorty’s libertarianism, and Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism. What pragmatism calls for is an inquiry, prior to which our policies and plans are but hypothetical constructs waiting to be validated through concrete behavioral sequences. If pragmatists share any political sensibility, it is probably “civility,” or if you will – “emotional intelligence” (Shalin 1992a, 2004, 2005). To the extent that pragmatists display it on their banners, they will be judged by how well they body forth this civic virtue, how much good faith they show in realigning their minds with their mindings. We discover what pragmatism means by following the pragmatist maxim for ascertaining meaning in live semiotic chains, i.e., by measuring its proponents’ discursive tokens with their emotional offerings and judging their claims by the behavioral bounty their actions reap. We cannot allow inquiry to be short-circuited on meaning in itself and poke deconstructively at the theory’s semantic contradictions; rather, we must explore how theorists exemplify their theoretical commitments in their own conduct, what performative contradictions they run into, and how the practitioners bridge the gap between their verbal claims and nonverbal renderings. Wherever the theory and the theorist work at cross-purpose, we gauge the intellectual enterprise by the theorist’s ethos and willingness to realign one’s signifying acts. Meaning sheds here its privileged status as a logical construct existing outside time and space; it grows, expands, opens up to the future; it points to the deeds yet to be undertaken, invites actions that may lend new life to the old meanings. To grasp meaning as an actual occasion in all its corporeal forms, we have to examine its life in situ and in actu. We grasp the life of meaning – the meaning of life – by surveying the full range of its discursive and nondiscursive interpretants, tracking the widest possible dispersion of its pragmatic renderings, and assessing the contradictory ways in which it is bodied forth by the historical agents who have incorporated given symbolic frames into their personal projects. Meaning is the emotionally charged and somatically grounded actions carried out within the ethico-hermeneutical horizons opened up by a given discourse. This concerns actions that were, are, or will be undertaken and legitimated within a given political-theoretical perspective. Hermeneutical horizons are ultimately the horizons of practical action, which expand and contract, merge with other horizons, or disappear altogether, as historical agents pursue their discursive practices. These practices are thoroughly somatized, inscribed in the body circuits continuously renewed by the agents through their discourse work, face work, emotion work, body work, action work, perhaps even gut work – any somatic-affective practice amenable to semiotic control. For the hermeneutical horizons to change, it is not enough to advance a novel ideology, to legislate politically correct discourse. Rooted in our bodies, the old discursive forms continue to seep into our emotions and drive our conduct long after the new symbols come into vogue. This pragmatist stance has implications for a theory of democracy.
As an embodied phenomenon, democracy calls for an affective presence. Its agentic texture is irreducible to any constitutional text, as long as the latter is severed from its nondiscursive moorings. “Judaism,” “Islamism,” “Christianity,” “Marxism,” “capitalism,” “liberalism” – these are abstractions waiting to be redeemed in the flesh. Their embodiments depend on historical agents whose conduct is affected by the social currents passing through them but whose “conductivity” is a factor to be reckoned with, as we belatedly discovered in Vietnam and are now rediscovering in Iraq. Society’s fuses are apt to blow when its members’ somatic-affective circuits are overloaded. No Bill of Rights can prevent a Columbine High massacre; charting clear legal boundaries and strenuously enforcing the laws can get us only so far in combating violence and abuse. Nor do political desiderata encoded in the nation’s foundational texts relieve us from the need to muddle through, to act as “strange attractors” willing to embody democracy in the flesh, to repair in actu and in situ the inanities of history and the inequities of being.
If politically pragmatist hermeneutics represents a quest for the emotionally intelligent democracy, then sociologically it is an inquiry into the somatic-affective conditions of its possibility, and philosophically it is a critique of (dis)embodied reason. It matters whether democracy boosters embody trust, tolerance, prudence, compassion, humor, or are weaned on suspicion, hatred, vanity, cruelty, and sarcasm (see mission statement of the UNLV Center for Democratic Culture, http://www.unlv.edu/centers/cdclv). For the democratic project to fulfill its promise, pragmatists have to find ways to realign, starting with themselves, the agentic substance of democracy with its normative-discursive canon.
The Embodiment Paradigm and the Hermeneutics of Embodiment
The project of pragmatist hermeneutics builds on the embodiment movement that has been invigorating the social sciences in recent years. It has particularly benefited from the ideas articulated by Bourdieu (1990) and Goffman (1959), Shusterman (1997) and Colapietro (1989), Alexander (2003, 2006a) and his colleagues developing the paradigm of cultural pragmatics (Alexander, Giesen and Mast 2006), as well as many scholars who have taken the somatic-affective turn in social science (Csordias 1990, 1994; Featherstone, Hepworth and Turner 1991; Schilling 1993; Lyon and Barbalet 1994; Turner 1994; Lakoff and Johnson 1999).
Common to social scientists in this nascent movement is the understanding of human agency as a somatically grounded, emotionally laden, discursively framed, historically rooted, self-referentially guided, and structurally constrained capacity for action. Taking their cue from Saussure, social scientists working within the embodiment paradigm insist that structuralist tenets need to be revised in the spirit of pragmatic paradigmatism when applied to society and culture. In most general terms, it is appropriate to say that the relationship between grammar and speech is analogous to the relationship between culture and body practices: both are mutually constitutive yet neither can be reduced to the other. But the seminal distinction between language structure and language-in-use draws too sharp a line between a self-contained linguistic system based on binary oppositions and embodied speech acts deemed peripheral to understanding the internal workings of language. Particularly instructive in this respect is the chess metaphor Saussure (1986:22-23, 88-89) invokes while elucidating his theory, for this metaphor shows exactly where the analogy between the language/speech and culture/body practices breaks down.
Rules of chess are the same for everyone, they are generally closed to revision, those who violate them will be barred from the game. Rules of society, on the other hand, are open to (re)interpretation and frequently ignored, violated, and revised. As an approximation (and contestable one at that), one can say that all members of a language community play the same language game. That is not the case with society, which is comprised of many games corresponding to various cultural domains, each one anchored in its own code, with new grammars coming into being incessantly. As emergent grammars clamor for attention and siphon off resources from the dominant ones, the paradigmization or grammatization process gets under way that taps agents’ creativity. Inescapably political and self-referential, this process bears little resemblance to the transformation of language. “[A] state of the board in chess corresponds exactly to a state of language,” observes Saussure (1986:88, 22). “If pieces of ivory are substituted for pieces made of wood, the change makes no difference to the system.” This is hardly the case in the cultural domain where pieces on the social board are self-propelling agents capable of transforming the normative structure that set them in motion. A metaphor more appropriate for the social-cultural domain would be society as a system of overlapping networks whose members are at once nodal points, transmitters, and traffic controllers. That is to say, we are all live wires through which social currents pass, but our conduct – conductivity – feeds back and reshapes the social networks from which we have sprung. Studying grammars-in-the-making casts the interplay between agency and structure in a new light.
Pierre Bourdieu has given a major boost to the efforts to reconceptualize the relationship between social structure and body. He took
cue in part from Mauss’s work on body techniques – “I can . . . recognize a girl who has been raised in a convent [for] she will walk with her fists closed” (Mauss 1978:35), and in part from Marx, specifically from his Theses on Feuerbach that call for “taking back from idealism the ‘active side’ of practical knowledge that the materialist tradition has abandoned to it. This is precisely the function of the notion of habitus, which restores to the agent a generating, unifying, constructing, classifying power, while recalling that this capacity to construct social reality, itself socially constructed, is not that of a transcendental subject but of a socialized body” (Bourdieu 2000a:136). Habitus is the concept Bourdieu uses to bring into one continuum agency and structure, to demonstrate that “[t]he body is in the social world but the social world is in the body” (152). Habitus is variously defined as “history incarnated,” “corporeal knowledge,” “a kind of infallible instinct,” or “deep-rooted bodily dispositions” which are triggered by social situations “without passing through consciousness and calculations” in a manner akin to an athlete making a split-second decision (151, 135, 159, 177). Armed with this concept and an ingenious theory of practice, Bourdieu (1984:157) outlines a societal structure in which dominant classes perpetuate their hegemony through the privileged access to “economic capital,” “symbolic capital” and “cultural capital in its incorporated form.” “[The individual’s] position in the relations of production governs practices, in particular through the mechanisms which control access to positions and produce or select a particular class of habitus. . . . the most typically bourgeois deportment can be recognized by a certain breath of gesture, posture and gait . . . contrasting with working class haste or petty bourgeois eagerness” (Bourdieu 1984:102, 218).
Bourdieu’s research program represented an important step forward compared to Levi-Strauss whose preoccupation with myth and the discursive forms of culture closely mirrors Saussure’s disembodied structuralism. But his socio-corporeal determinism came under criticism because it threatened to reduce agency to its reproductive function and left little room for emergent transformation and radical political engagement (Jenkins 1992; Shusterman 1997; Hoy 1999; Alexander 2006a:561-562). Indeed, Bourdieu’s own surveys show that the amount of variance in overt conduct traceable to class/field positions is relatively trivial, with plenty of border crossing between social groupings when it comes to taste if not deportment. Responding to his critics, Bourdieu sought to clarify his position, pointing out that “[h]abitus is not a destiny,” that “a habitus [can be] divided against itself,” that uncalculating agents can “improvise,” act “strategically,” use their “sense for the game,” and that “the homology between the space of positions and the space of dispositions is not perfect and there are always some agents out on the limb” (Bourdieu 2000a:180, 157; 1999:511). This move made his account more realistic but it was achieved at the price of stretching his paradigm to a point where the meaning of socially corporealized agency becomes elusive, for talking about “primary habitus” (Bourdieu 2000a:157) inevitably raises the question about “secondary habitus, “tertiary habitus,” and so on. Even in its amended form, Bourdieu’s paradigm has several drawbacks: it downplays the discursive dimension of human agency (the intellectually undemanding game like tennis is no better approximation of strategically enacted agency than the calculation-driven games of scrabble or poker); it overlooks the multiple group affiliation and crosscutting identifications characteristic of modern societies (Friedrich Engels was a capitalist but he used the surplus value he had extracted from his workers to foment the proletarian revolution); and it unduly spurns the commitment to universalism and critical discourse as the self-serving exercise of intelligentsia (the historical struggle for the universal human rights, equality before law, and human dignity did more than perpetuate the domination of chattering classes). One last critical point to be brought up here, the one especially attuned to the research agenda articulated in this paper, concerns the performative contradiction endemic to Bourdieu’s embodied practice. I am talking about the fact that for all his personal charm and charisma, Bourdieu “enjoyed his power as star intellectual,” was “brutally intolerant of rival views,” and given to “vicious invective” against his opponents whose “imbecilic misinterpretation” he was quick to denounce (Shusterman 2002b) – all this while he was condemning his academic rivals for their “symbolic violence” and hunger for “academic supremacy.”
There are many passages in Erving Goffman’s writings that bear an uncanny resemblance to Bourdieu’s work, as for instance this prominently displayed Bourdieuesque quote from Adam Smith where the latter describes a well-bred 18th century gentleman whose “air, his manner, his deportment, all mark that elegant, and graceful sense of his superiority, which born to inferior stations can hardly ever arrive at” (Goffman 1959:34). Yet, Goffman’s take on embodied interactions differs from that of his French acquaintant (the two met at the University of Pennsylvania where Goffman offered his junior colleague a job). While Bourdieu stresses the indelible nature of the marks society leaves on the human body, Goffman is fascinated with the body’s malleability, with agent’s prodigious capacity to adjust its demeanor to situational requirements. Goffman’s research program is focused on face-to-face interactions marked by “a brief time span involved, a limited extension in space, and a restriction to those events that must go on to completion once they have began”; it uses as its data “behavioral materials [such as] the glances, gestures, positionings, and verbal statements that people continuously feed into the situation, whether intended or not”; and it is grounded in the premise that “the individual is likely to present himself in a light that is favorable to him [with his performance split] into two parts; a part that is relatively easy for the individual to manipulate at will, being chiefly his verbal assertions, and a part with regard to which he seems to have little control, being chiefly derived from expression he gives off. The others may then use what are considered to be ungovernable aspects of his expressive behavior as a check upon the validity of what is conveyed by the governable aspects” (Goffman 1967:1; 1959:7). The visible body resources the agent mobilizes to communicate the intended self-image are conceptualized as “face” while staged performances are referred to as “face-work,” with the proviso that “the person’s face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on the body but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter” (Goffman 1967:7). The ultimate discerner and noticer, Goffman furnished many an insightful account of interaction rituals through which humans deploy their bodies and mobilize their verbal skills to construct desired appearances. Goffman’s naturalistic methodology dovetails with the pragmatist inquiry, as does the semiotic turn his theory took in the latter stages of his intellectual career when he focused on the “framing process,” “sign production,” and “[t]he natural indexical signs given off by objects and animals (including, and primarily, man)” (Goffman 1974; 1979:7). Nonetheless, Goffman’s approach diverges from pragmatist hermeneutics in several ways.
The focus on short-term transactions and immediate presence makes the dramaturgical approach less suitable for tracking the long semiotic chains unfolding in historical time central to pragmatist hermeneutics. There are tantalizing remarks on biography and reputation in Goffman’s writing, notably in Stigma (Goffman 1963:66-71), but they need to be expanded and revised to facilitate the biocritical analysis suggested in this paper. Problematic from the standpoint of pragmatist hermeneutics is Goffman’s programmatic decision to sever “expressive” properties of interactions from their “instrumental” characteristics, which disregards the dialectical relationship between form and content. To cite his own examples, a waiter can display a snazzy front in the hopes of earning better tips, a plumber may surreptitiously take off his glasses to protect his manly image, and a prostitute could spend extra time validating a customer’s self-image, but the waiter’s job will be ultimately judged by the food quality and timely delivery, the plumber will earn respect by stopping the leak, and ego-stroking is not the only skill bearing on a sex worker’s performance. The exclusive focus on “the expressive costume that individuals are expected to wear whenever they are in the immediate presence of others” (Goffman 1967:133) also raises the question as to the role that agent’s body plays in society. “The world, in truth, is a wedding,” Goffman (1959:36) assures us, but such statements underscore the dramaturgical analysis’s tendency to disembody human agency, to overlook the propensity of a mask to morph into a face. Particularly jarring for a pragmatist ear is Goffman’s insistence that “he [agent] and his body merely provide a peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time” (Goffman 1959:253). Whereas Bourdieu posits too rigid a link between the body and its social role, Goffman treats this bond as somewhat perfunctory; when the former construes the socialized body as hypoconductive, the latter tends to see the body as a hyperconductive medium. This becomes especially troublesome when Goffman theorizes mental illness, as he assures us in his famous study Asylum that “the ‘mentally ill’ . . . and mental patients distinctly suffer not from mental illness, but from contingencies,” that “the craziness or ‘sick behavior’ claimed for the mental patient is by and large a product of the claimant’s social distance from the situation that the patient is in, and is not primarily a product of mental illness” (Goffman 1961:135, 130). As fate would have it, biographical circumstances forced Goffman to revise his views (Goffman’s wife developed a serious mental illness and committed suicide in 1964 soon after she was released from a psychiatric ward in the wake of the deinstitutionalization campaign her husband had helped to set in motion). An apparently autobiographical account of his painful experience surfaces in a poignant essay “The Insanity of Place” where Goffman (1971:389) no longer puts mental illness in quotation marks, but his statement still sounds equivocal as to the somatic dimension of social conduct: “Whatever the cause of the offender’s psychological state – and clearly this may sometimes be organic – the social significance of the disease is that its carrier somehow hits upon the way that things can be made hot for us.” The (mis)alignment between Goffman the scholar, the teacher, and the man is one more facet of his prodigious output crying for a biocritical examination. The incongruous impressions Goffman left on his contemporaries – some remember him as “a warm, friendly, modest, considerate man” (Bourdieu 2000b:4) while others recall him as “cynical, ironical, duplicitous, deceptive, unserious, nonpersuasive” (MacCannell 2000:13) – would present a worthy challenge for a student of biocritical hermeneutics.
Richard Shusterman (1997, 2000a) has shown how pragmatism can incorporate somatic practices into the analysis of culture, art, and society. An admirer of the socially grounded theory of art developed by Bourdieu, Shusterman felt the need to distance himself from his French colleague’s views as incompatible with the pragmatist perspective on body and popular art. Whereas Dewey criticized the academic views of canonical art and stressed the importance of popular art forms, Shusterman observed (1992:183), Bourdieu sides with those who “loath to recognize that there are humanly worthy and esthetically rewarding activities other than intellectual excursion” found in high-brow art, whose proponents look down at their popular counterpart as aesthetic travesty. Through a series of critical studies of rap, country music, and body arts, Shusterman validates their aesthetic appeal and demonstrates why Bourdieu’s approach “wrongly essentializes the nature of artistic understanding by affirming that there is only one legitimate way of understanding art – ‘a science of works’” (Shusterman 2000a:223). Starting with the premise that “body was always the primordial paradigm of the media,” “a medium of aesthetic self-fashioning,” and “a means of aesthetic pleasure,” Shusterman (2000a:138-141, 1997:9) proposes somaesthetics as a field of scholarship exploring the relationship between somatic practices like meditation, physical exercise, body styling, sexual performance, and ascetic self-control, on one hand, and traditional philosophical subjects such as perception, ratiocination, and self-consciousness, on the other. Of particular interest from the standpoint of pragmatist hermeneutics is the question Shusterman (1997:9) raises: “What is the connection between the views of a philosopher and his or her life?” His comparative biography of Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Foucault is a fine example of how philosophers’ private pursuits interact with their public engagements and theoretical commitments. Shusterman also differs from Bourdieu and Goffman in his willingness to engage in autobiography to show how his location in historical time and space, specifically his split persona as a secular Zionist American Jew, drove him to resolve the contradictions in his self-identity by “integrating the self’s conflicting roles and stories into [a] narrative coherence” and committing himself to a life of “[a]esthetic self-creation” (Shusterman 1997:195). This frank discussion goes a long way to expose “the philosophy’s deep seated prejudice for universality,” “[t]he taboo of the personal and contingent” (Shusterman 2000a:181).
While it suggests new directions for the pragmatist inquiry into body practices, Shusterman’s approach raises difficult questions concerning a self-interpretation in the pragmatist key. If for Bourdieu the body is a semiconductor programmed early on to pass a limited set of social currents and for Goffman it is a superconductor instantly switching to an appropriate semiotic display, then for Shusterman the agent's body is a transistor conducive to various social circuits whose response to environmental pressures is mediated by self-direction, askesis, and exercise modulating bodily competencies throughout the agents’ life span. The emphasis on auto-reflection and self-styling exposes the ethical ambiguities of biocritical research. When does a legitimate self-exploration turn into a narcissistic navel gazing; how much frankness is too much/too little; what makes the personal account self-serving or insincere? For instance, Shusterman (2000a:183) mentions “populating [Israel] with three children” without telling us with whom, under what circumstances, or which kind of relationship he has with his children. Do we need to know such details, is the “narrative unity” the author strives for achieved at the price of glossing over the incongruent and painful strands of his enselfment?
In keeping with biocritical hermeneutics, we must do the reverse editing here to restore the redacted materials that promise to recover less auspicious enselfements and rescue from oblivion more encompassing self-framings.
The goal is reconstruction rather than deconstruction here, although the two are intertwined. I hope Richard Shusterman will address these issues in his future work, incorporate into his study the distinction between the signifying media suggested by pragmatist hermeneutics, and trace in a more systematic fashion the tension between vita activa, vita contemplativa, and vita voluptuosa in the lives of famous and not so famous thinkers (e.g., is Dewey’s extramarital affair and Wittgenstein’s frustrated homosexuality a proper subject of somaesthetics?).
Jeffrey Alexander’s magisterial treatise on the civic sphere which includes “structures of feelings that permeate social life and run just below the surface of strategic institutions and self-conscious elites” zeroes in on the issues central to pragmatist hermeneutics (Alexander 2006a:54). “Civil hermeneutics,” as Alexander (2006a:550) conceives it, examines how the civic ideals have been sabotaged by the dominant elites’ visceral reactions that have engendered exclusionary and hegemonic practices. Further inquiry along these lines could benefit from comparison between the semiotic resources of the body and the textual authority of scriptural signs. The role of civility as an embodied virtue deserves special attention in this regard, more so than it has been accorded in the book. Also, it would be interesting to expand Alexander’s study of the social construction of the Holocaust (2003:24-84) so that it squares off with the Torah commandment to exterminate the Amalekites, the Jewish people’s response to this commandment, and the manner in which this biblical narrative has been reconstructed over the course of time.
Of particular relevance to the line of inquiry outlined in this essay is the research program designated as “cultural pragmatics” (Alexander, Giesen and Mast 2006). Building on the ideas of Erving Goffman, Victor Turner, and Kenneth Burke, sociologists comprising this school study culture as it comes across in strategic performances staged by skillful agents who deploy their symbolic and emotional resources in the bid to dramatize meaning structures embedded in cultural scripts. “Cultural pragmatics accounts for how meaning, in the form of background collective representations, shapes social actors and audiences’ interpretations in a deeply structural way [while allowing] for contingency by reconciling culture’s constitutive power with social actors’ abilities to creatively and agentically situate and strategize vis-à-vis the symbolic structures in which they are embedded” (Mast 2006:138-139). “To take meaning seriously,” according to this outlook (Alexander and Mast 2006:2, 32, 39), requires not only deciphering society’s cultural codes but also showing how agents manage to “offer plausible performances,” “not only metaphorically but literally [becoming] the text,” “creatively citing hegemonic codes in order to play upon and subvert them” (Alexander 2006b:14). Pragmatist hermeneutics shares with cultural pragmatics an abiding interest in “the incongruities between words and deeds” (Mast 2006:120), although the cultural pragmatics’ agenda is closer to depth hermeneutics with its focus on “background structures of immanent meaning” (Eyerman 2006:195) while the pragmatist approach hews closer to surface hermeneutics that concerns itself with body language games and emergent grammars exerting cross-pressures on agents caught in their gravitational pull. Since each approach suggests complementary solutions to the problem of agency and structure, there are ample opportunities for cross-fertilization.
Recent research on body metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson 1999), pragmatist neuroscience (Brothers 1997), neurosociology (Franks and Thomas Smith 1999), somatic markers and unconscious memory (Massey 2001) has opened new vistas for understanding our interpretive practices. What these studies tell us is that “the conscious mind is a monkey riding a tiger of unconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control” (Overbye 2007:D1). Once reason grasped the situation discursively, it has already been powerfully influenced by emotions. The mammalian brain continuously bombards the cerebral cortex with strong signals waiting to be rationalized, which explains why emotions have a far more powerful impact on logical reasoning than the other way around. The affect will undergo changes once it has been subsumed under a proper label, but its somatic presence will inform conduct in a way that resists conscious control. We need to adjust our theoretical schema to account for the role that unconscious affect and somatic markers left by historical upheavals have on our interpretive practices.
Finally, pragmatist hermeneutics acknowledges its debt to 20th century hermeneutics. Gadamer and Ricoeur have taught us much about the historical nature of meaning appropriation and the role of language in interpretative reconstruction, but the master metaphor of “text” and “textuality” that animates structural hermeneutics is overdue for pragmatist revision. “In writing, th[e] meaning of what is spoken exists purely for itself, completely detached from all emotional elements of expression and communication,” explains Gadamer (1982:357, 350). “In this sense understanding is certainly not concerned with understanding historically, ie reconstructing the way the text has come into being. Rather, one is understanding the text itself.” There is no room to explore here how Gadamer’s own historical enselfments might be implicated in his theoretical stance (Shalin 2004b). Suffice it to say that pragmatists have reservations about the privileging of written tradition over the performative one. Indeed, Gadamer (1982:251) goes as far as to contend that “tradition is linguistic in nature.” Pragmatist hermeneutics, by contrast, insists that textualized cultural forms fail to capture the vibrancy and contradictions of lived experience. Written traditions tend to distort voices that fail to come to language and articulate their own emergent grammars, voices obscured and suppressed by dominant discourses.
Ricoeur’s formulation is more balanced. He is particularly helpful in explaining how actions become a matter of record, how they bear on the agent’s reputation and disclose the agent’s historical world. Pragmatists will agree that “action itself, action as meaningful, may become an object of science . . . through a kind of objectification similar to the fixation which occurs in writing” (Ricoeur 1981:203). But the fact that “a text breaks the ties of discourse to all the ostensible references” and secures the “emancipation from the situational context” (Ricoeur 1981:207) spells trouble for pragmatists who situate historical agents on the intersection of multiple discourses/paradigms and resists assigning an agent to any one “world.” As is the case with most theorists who take their cues from Frege’s view of meaning qua logical sense, there is also little room in Ricoeur’s framework for nondiscursive significations and affective narratives that propel pragmatist inquiry.
Pragmatist hermeneutics has more affinity with early Heidegger who stressed the vital link between our moods and interpretive practices. “It is precisely when we see the ‘world’ unsteady and fitfully in accordance with our moods, that the ready-to-hand shows itself in its specific moodhood, which is never the same from day to day. . . . Yet even the purest theoria has not left all moods behind it. . . . Indeed from the ontological point of view we must as a general principle leave the primary discovery of the world to ‘bare moods’” (1962:177). Heidegger abandoned this existentialist stance once he took a linguistic turn on the road to disembodiment, but its unmistakably pragmatic thrust calls for further investigation. This bold move invites a fresh look at the hermeneutical circle which, as Heidegger (1962;195) warned us, “is not to be reduced to the level of vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerated, [for in this] circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing.” I take this to mean that tracking the embodiment-disembodiment-reembodiment arc requires that we insert ourselves – our bodies – into the hermeneutical circle and make sure that our affections and deeds continuously bear on our discursive commitments. As we enter the pragmatically recast hermeneutical circle, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to spell out our commitments pragmatically, join issues with opponents, bring all evidence to bear, make room for the honest difference of opinion, affirm dignity of the parties involved, and body forth in deed what we profess in theoria. These quasi-discursive properties of discourse comprise what can be called the ethos of pragmatist hermeneutics. Exploring such pre- and postinterpretive practices surrounding the interpretation process will add a welcome dimension to hermeneutical inquiry.
As is the case with every theoretical enterprise, the project of pragmatist hermeneutics is bound to raise more questions than it answers.
How do we match icons, indexes, and symbols? Which actions comprising the universe of embodied significations bear on a given discursive stance? Cannot some affective indexes be discarded or bracketed as exceptions (a Mel Gibson’s moment), certain deeds set aside as aberrations (Billy Graham’s anti-Semitic slur)? How far can a particular enselfment stray from the self one aspires to be before the agent has to renounce its claim to a given selfhood, ceases to reveal a pragmatic identity? Wouldn’t it help to separate the universal-logical-extratemporal content of a theory from its mundane-contingent-pragmatic incarnations? Shouldn’t we draw a clear line between public actions and private deeds to avoid airing dirty linen and running roughshod through a person’s private life? How can we honor the time-proven injunction against ad hominem reasoning while sustaining a responsible inquiry into the affective-behavioral underpinnings of a theoretically grounded and politically committed enterprise? Isn’t it imperative for someone bent on exploring biosemiotic raptures in other people’s lives to start with one’s own discursive-pragmatic misalignments and bare one’s own somatic/affective a priori? Given Foucault’s commitment to living his own philosophy and the extensive use he made of other people’s archives, was he justified in destroying all his diaries, correspondence, and manuscripts before he died and demanding that his friends do the same with the personal communication bearing Foucault’s signature? Should we keep our personal archives in good shape and be prepared to open them up for inspection, if so – when? How can one counter the tendency to judge and moralize implicit in the hermeneutical procedures focused on the pragmatist-discursive misalignment?
I cannot pretend to know answers to all these queries. My hope is that the questions raised will engender a viable line of inquiry into the scope and the meaning of pragmatist hermeneutics.
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