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H. Ristau: “Lest We Forget”: Forgetting and Remembering in the Art of Hermeneutics and Dialogue

“The future carries the burden of all our pasts. That’s why it’s important to know of how many forgotten words it is made.” (Jabès, 45)

Although post-modernism arose as a means of re-interpreting and re-understanding script, observations made are not limited to the sphere of exegesis. What do hermeneutics and dialogue have in common? When “the text” is extended to include verbal exchanges, and not simply written ones, as suggested by Paul Ricoeur, coupled by the notion of Michel Foucault that, because the author’s intent is uncertain the text remains a “living” document, the principles of interpretation and understanding can be expanded to include a conversation not simply between a subject and object (i.e., author and a document), but between two subjects/objects (i.e., two people in dialogue).

In attempting to explain the problem of interpretation in light of the above words by Edmond Jabès, it is important that we first begin by challenging our common presumptions regarding the phenomenon of time. In her task of creating an appropriate space for woman in developing her own self-understandings within a gender-biased society (a “Women’s Time”), Julia Kristeva wisely demonstrates how our western concept of time as linear is a product of masculine logic. To seriously challenge this notion is extremely difficult. Martin Heidegger explains how one must recognize that metaphysics is only one way of understanding the world, yet without being able to conceive of others, one cannot actually practice that possibility. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger does not claim to offer another alternative (to the disappointment of Paul Ricoeur) but rather his task is simply to convince us that there are others. So too, neither a man nor a woman can simply say, “Now I will no longer think in linear time.” However, acknowledging that we in the West do think in linear time (which is closely intertwined with a linear logic) in contrast with, and to the exclusion of, other possible ways of thinking, is a confession and example of how the past is carried into the future. Hence, Jabès talks about “past” in the plural. Husserl’s description is helpful here, as “Lebenswelt” includes all past interpretations of past texts. There has always been an indefinite number of ways of thinking and interpreting other worldviews, eyes, and filters in understanding the nature and meaning of things (i.e., ontology and metaphysics). To think, or claim, otherwise is a withdrawing of oneself from other possible horizons of interpreting, thinking and being. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer in his article “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” prejudice prevents the subject from developing other ways of raising questions and prohibiting the widening of human consciousness. In essence, it prevents a human from being fully human, isolating the individual from the rest of humanity. Conversely, when one is open to the exploration of other possibilities, one becomes ever more liberated as a human in humankind. Accordingly, a closed “objective” position is unhelpful and unrealistic in the process of uncovering and understanding truth.

Gadamer shows us that the most subjective interpretation is actually the most objective one. It is, in other words, presumptuous for one to believe that his or her questions are the only ones being asked. As Rudolph Bultmann first unveiled in his article “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?,” just as there are innumerable pre-understandings, there are also innumerable ways in which one can approach a text, ask a question, and express a thought. However, if the subject is not sufficiently cognizant of where he or she is (i.e., his or her position in approaching the text), then the text is an insufficient tool of communication: the text invariably speaks past the subject. One remains lost in one’s own closed space and practices a kind of “selective hearing.” Such interpretation results in a loss of human dignity because, according to Roland Barthes, people have an innate desire to create something new. In that case of denying one’s pasts as relevant to the future (or failing to see the multiplicity of others’ pasts, and thus denying them as relevant), one limits one’s own possibilities for creativity and development into new horizons. Instead, as Rudolph Bultmann most originally articulates, there remain many ways to see and explore an event or text.

Bultmann convinces us that the hermeneutical desire to transplant oneself into the past is a strange and unnatural phenomenon. It is so, not only because it is impossible to transpose oneself into the past, as Dilthey, the great interpreter of Schleirmacher argued, but, more importantly, because it seems to be a task without purpose and result: “What purpose would such an ability have? What would be its social use?” Whatever the motivation, it still remains an unrealistic undertaking since an interpreter can never “dump” his or her own past, a past which then becomes the greatest of burdens to Dilthey and Schleirmacher. Furthermore, it is impossible to know all those “forgotten words” because, as semiotics declares, underlying every text is an extra-linguistic reality: a language that underpins every language. Whenever one approaches any text, one must be honest about this truth. One must recognize that the “burden of all our pasts” relates to presuppositions that we so often “take for granted.” Bultmann has convincingly demonstrated in his argument that there is no such thing as a “presupposition-less” exegesis. “What does the text mean?” he asks. It depends upon who you ask and when you ask them. Answers begin to arise from a universe of pre-understandings from a background of assumptions and premises. Ricoeur has successfully demonstrated this in his article “The Task of Hermeneutics” where he uncovers layer after layer of ontological and epistemological presuppositions and pre-understandings in the development of hermeneutical thought, an argument echoed in Michel Foucault’s well-titled piece: The Archaeology of Knowledge. Yet to believe that we have fully uncovered even some of them (i.e., some of those “forgotten words” and deepest presuppositions) is a rather foolish assumption, since underneath them rest a whole new layer of pre-presuppositions, pre-pre-suppositions, and so forth. In this sense, it is not enough to be aware of the many “forgotten words” of which our present is made, but also of the vast array of “unknown” and “hidden” words including languages, socio-symbolic logics, notions of time and space, and other extra-linguistic dimensions of being. It is only when we acknowledge the limits to self-reflection and human intention, and the conditions for knowing, that we can begin to become “opened-up” to new and other “horizons” (to use Gadamer’s expression). Then we may, possibly, with Michel Foucault say something “new” in the creative and adventurous spirit of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. These individuals did not attempt to transfer themselves into the past, which is a meaningless and useless task, but daringly tried to open themselves up into other worlds, widening communal consciousness through efforts at seeing the same object or event with new eyes and imagination. But first they confessed their “burdens” and ignorance by decentralizing themselves, and thereby abandoning the popular kind of authoritarian hermeneutic that continues to control us today. When we act likewise, the universal “problem” of interpretation ceases to be a problem, and instead becomes an adventure, as one begins to ask questions like, “Why does or does not something speak to us?,” instead of “What does this mean for us all?”

Foucault and Derrida challenge us to ask a different kind of question, originating not from a linear time, but from a position within space. Temporality truly is a function of hermeneutics. How we see the relationship of future to past will affect the way we understand the present, and our place within that time and space. “What causes what?” is an inescapable form of questioning in the West. Our view of time as linear and our inability to see it as otherwise, makes it difficult for us to grasp how language could possibly be a function of hermeneutics, instead of simply a tool of a communicator (as Jürgen Habermas held); how language could be, as Heidegger under Nietzche’s inspiration, states, the “house of being.” Jabès challenges us to look at the house in which we are unconsciously seated. He invites us to become aware of all the unknown words, and become overwhelmed with our contingency, and lack of independence as subject. Once we see ourselves not as a giant inside that house, but rather a mouse, we can possibly find a tiny small crack through which we can venture into a large new world of thinking and existing, and then, possibly, we may begin to say something new, creating as the artists that we are. Then we may actually become a true interpreter and exegete. Then we may become human.

How can we truly express something new within the confines of the house language? We must avoid behaving as a shy mouse, fearing to explore the unknown cracks. We must not fear the creation of new vocabulary, new words, with worries as to whether or not they will be easily accepted, or will make us feel uncomfortable. We must become estranged from our own language before we can say something new and avoid simply repeating what is old. What James Joyce dangerously attempts in the field of literature, Jacques Derrida does in the field of linguistics and philosophy in his play of “différance” (in his piece, Margins of Philosophy). Then we can begin to think differently, and relate to one another differently. Then, possibly, Kristeva’s desire for a relevant and edifying discourse which is reflective of a true difference between the sexes can be explored and developed.

Habermas was unable to appropriate this challenge. In his search for the ideal community of communication, he demonstrated that he had a different understanding of language and being than that of Gadamer or Heidegger. For him, language was primarily a construct of man, a tool, and not a “house of being.” The “dialogue which we are” (a phrase originating with Hölderlin, and embraced by Gadamer), does not make sense to Jurgen Habermas who understands it as a “dialogue in which we live,” by negating the phenomenon of language to instrumentality, psychoanalysis and power-relations. Habermas appears to have been interested in the creation of something, whereas Gadamer was interested in the process of creation: an “opening-up” into other fields and possibilities. However, Habermas was unable to think on an entirely new plane, and displayed his reliance on the “Major tradition” of western philosophy.

Conversely, Derrida would have us think not linearly, but rather geometrically, opening us into new space, displaying his alliance with the “Minor tradition” of western philosophy (which still remains relatively unexplored in the West). For instance, with Bultmann, he saw the importance of the margins of the text. What is not said is as important as what is. The margins unveil “forgotten words.” They help us peer into the closets of our pasts. The margins hide the structure, and when they are acknowledged, they direct us towards the center. It is, after all, only when we are able to catch a glimpse of this center that we can begin to de-center or deconstruct. Then we begin looking for the center in the absence of center; investigating the place and role of center in the game. In our search, it becomes evident that the subject is affirmed, then, as center. One may even argue that in his “circular” discussion, Derrida offers us a new way of thinking. As he himself exemplifies in his play of “différance,” a true and unconstrained “freeplay” of the structure will only occur once we have situated the position of the true center. (Derrida, Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, 248) Until we walk this path with Derrida (whether we agree with him or not is irrelevant), we are never truly “free” in our “play.”

With Derrida, one has a window into organizing hermeneutics according to the vastness of space, instead of the barriers of time. In space, Jabès’ challenge is possible; in time, we are trapped. Space, after all, is the condition of all possibility, and is beyond intelligibility and sense perception. What is present is part of its presence. It may be risky to open oneself up to this kind of space, but necessary in uncovering forgotten words of the past, in our voyage into the future.

Foucault provides a powerful and convincing example of our preference of time to space in his discussion of the role of the author in the West. He demonstrates that the author is fiction. “What does it matter who spoke?” he rhetorically asks. Instead, he wants to “locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance” (Foucault, What Is an Author?, 145). The idea of “author” as having such a necessary and principal function in western society raises more important questions about how we understand ourselves, than the question, “Who is the author?” The distinction is really between the “whatness” and the “thatness” of something, and the relationship between the two. Yet before making that distinction, the author must first “disappear” and be revealed as a function of the text. Then new discourses can become open. That is the field in which “founders of discurvity” (Foucault, 154) are created: distinguished individuals who open up new discourses creating new explorers and artists, and an endless possibility of discourse.

In the quote in question, Jabès is therefore not asking of us the impossible, which may appear so at first glance. He is not asking us to attempt to “figure out” all these forgotten words, but simply know of how many forgotten words our present self-understanding is made. As Peirce has identified, there are powers of mind beyond the individual, as things relate to each other, prior to our thinking of them. Accordingly, Jabès asks us simply (although it is always with great difficulty) to acknowledge our own ignorance regarding our pasts and pre-texts as extra-linguistic reality, and, therefore, our own subjectivity. Then we can approach hermeneutics with a kind of genuine humility, rejecting the notion that ours is the only way, but recognizing the multiplicity of valid interpretations.

One can never assert that there is only one game to play. To do so is to participate in an authoritarian and useless assertion. Likewise, to insist upon a “pure” or “true” reading of the text is nonsensical since there are always other background “writings” present as pre-text. In short, the reader never decodes, but over-codes. “The reader is the complete subject and the field of reading is that of absolute subjectivity.” (Barthes, On Reading, 42) This ought not frighten us. It is good, since through this discovery, the subject rediscovers himself or herself, releasing a creative energy in the subsequent choices that are made. Each individual subject is a unique composition of “pasts” containing exciting possibilities of interpretation. Yet none will be manifested unless one is courageous enough to step out of one’s own safe horizon by acknowledging the specific rules of this specific game, and thereby daring to speak something radical, and new, into a new horizon.

For instance, awareness of the structure is necessitated before one can pervert the structure. One needs to know the rules of game before one can begin to break them (as Derrida does with “différance”) and explore the possibility of creating other games (as Kristeva hopes will be the case for woman). In a new game, with new rules, something new is said, and something worthwhile is created. Ironically, a remembering of forgotten words requires a forgetting of remembered words.

As a matter of fact, as Barthes points out, to concentrate on one thing requires the forgetting about something else. Forgetting can be good. One is always making selections in reading, which necessarily requires the forgetting of other things. This is how creativity occurs and new things are said. That is what is happening when “the eyes are lifted from the text” (Barthes, Writing Reading, 30). However, to forget that one forgets is dangerous because it falsely convinces the reader that his or hers is the only way of understanding.

For instance, reading (which relates to one kind of text), probes one to think and to write, as Barthes argues. That is why we all naturally “look up” from our book when we read. We are thereby expressing our desire to write (a “writing” which has begun in our mind). Those writings, when conveyed and written, in turn, probe the same process in others. Interpretation, then, is not simply a repetition of tradition, but a transmitting of tradition (which is built on an almost infinite number of words, the majority, incidentally, being forgotten) in a new form. Like a ball of yarn, which does not unravel, but continues to accumulate more and more yarn, hermeneutics changes its shape in every encounter with individuality. There is no end. There is simply a new shape defining a new space. Yet, if one is not conscious of some of those words and pasts, it will likely occur that one will say something that has simply been said before, but forgotten. This is no future at all, but only an unconscious return to, and repeating of, the past.

Actually, true reading always happens away from the text; again, by looking up from the text. When we are interested in the text, we intuitively move away from it while thinking something new, interpret something new, finding or deriving something new in and from the text. Our human desire to create is thereby manifested, since when “desire functions, something is released.” (Barthes, On Reading, 38) That “something” is a creative energy which compels us to “write” (Barthes, On Reading, 41), or, in short, to create. The human spirit’s cry to “love me” not only motivates our writing but everything we make. Writing, like creating, is an extension of who we are. Barthes’ implicit claim that reading is thinking, launches Ricoeur’s question, “What is a text?” into a new horizon: “Is the world one large text? Is anything that we create a text?” Foucault hints at an affirmative reply in his discussion regarding the essence of an author, since there are a variety of different kinds of authors. And if discourse is an essential element in our relationship to a text, then can we say that the whole world is one large discourse? Although answers may forever remain concealed, questions must always be asked. And in asking them, forgotten words are remembered, the burden of our pasts acknowledged, and a future created.

Therefore, the text asks us to move away from it, to forget about it, and think and say something new, while at the same time not abandoning its role in the creative process. That past text is carried into the future, and thus its presence must not be forgotten. If it is, then tradition will simply be repeated, instead of something new transmitted. In this sense, the text does have an intention in itself. It is wrapped up with our pasts, affecting our future. It insists that we reflect upon a tripartite relationship of author, text and reader.

Ricoeur attempts to do precisely this by defining the aim of reading as “opening out onto other things” (Ricoeur, What Is a Text?, 158). That is the “intention” of the text. Accordingly, the text and reader shape each other under the conditions of a “hermeneutical arc,” since “what the interpreter says is a re-saying which reactivates what is said by the text.” (Ricoeur, What Is a Text?, 164) After all, there is no text without a reader. The reader is essential. The relationship dominates. However, though Ricoeur knows that this relationship as discourse is the third element joining the two, he is puzzled as to how it functions and influences the others. Foucault, though, believes that it does.

Because of his new and radical statements, Foucault has often been accused of killing the subject as he refuses to simply presuppose the subject as is commonly done in the presumptions of western epistemology and metaphysics. But is it not the case, rather, that he was daring enough to speak forgotten words and lay open the burden of our past for all eyes to see? Yet in the process of showing the burden, he created a hermeneutic of the subject, which one cannot really call a burden. It remains a burden of our past when we fail to see the conditions of the appearance of subject. So, it can cease to be a burden and begin to be a treasure when it is acknowledged and not ignored, remembered and not forgotten. Something is burdensome not when it is heavy, but when it is heavy in an undesirable sense. A heavy winter jacket is not a burden in the winter, but only in the summer. Our pasts, our subjectivity, no longer become a burden when we see them for what they are. Then, though remaining heavy, they may actually become useful. When one acknowledges the heavy truth highlighted in the “Minor tradition” of western philosophy, that “the essence of something is not that something,” one is able to give a pleasant sigh of relief as the burden is unloaded, and, although it does not disappear, it can begin to be “played” with.

There is a necessary evolution of meaning through time. The hermeneutical task for Ricoeur is to explicate the world of the text for the present, and thus allow “becoming.” However, as long as his subject is presupposed, a true “becoming” does not “become.” With Foucault and Derrida, there is no secret intention that the text and the past has for the reader and the present. Instead there are layers and spaces, places to explore and uncover pasts, forgotten words, and more importantly, unknown words. Along with Barthes and Jabès they beg that we be honest. For example, even though we all read, we cannot describe to each other how we read, unveiling some walls of “the house of being” and the fact that the “essence is not the essence.” Instead, the phenomenon of reading is an expression of desire, a desire to say as “something is released” and produced. That desire should be encouraged, a desire that Jabès helps to plant in the hearts of his readers. However, in a culture underpinned by a particular understanding of the function of reading and writing, obstacles to the venture into new horizons are many.

Honest and constructive dialogue necessitates an open evaluation of one’s own biases and a courageous entrepreneurial spirit which strives to creatively harness the uniqueness and specificities of those of others in moving forward towards these new horizons. Embracing the worldview of the other, and believing it to be true, even for a brief moment, may require too great a suspension of one’s own beliefs. Doubting one’s own presuppositions and self-understandings, for an equally brief period, may be a more realistic goal. In any case, post-modern thinking provides us practical tools in advancing towards those goals.

The process of discovering potential futures is more meaningful than locating an outcome. Because in the process of exploring forgotten words and presuppositions, and honestly investigating and confessing our pasts, the future has already become the present. Perhaps an insight into our “progress” in this matter is manifested by the kind of questions that we are comfortable with asking. In short, we have begun to remember how many forgotten past words of which our future is made, when we see that what questions are asked, is less important than what questions are not.

Padre Harold Ristau is Captain and Standards Officer in the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre. He received an MA in Political Science and an MDiv from Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary and Brock University in St. Catharine, Ontario (2000) and completed his PhD in Religious Studies at McGill University. Ordained as a Lutheran minister of the Lutheran Church Canada in 2001, he served two Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations in Montréal, Québec, working closely with Muslim refugees from Pakistan and India. In 2006, Padre Ristau joined the Canadian Armed Forces and served as chaplain in Valcartier, Quebec. During that period, he was deployed twice to Afghanistan. Padre Ristau is the author of various religious, spiritual and theological articles and is the author of two books.


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