1. Material Semiotics
Broadly, my hermeneutic approach could be described as a “material semiotics,” but the kind of material semiotics I’ve got in mind requires us to read the relationship between the “material” and the “semiotic” as working in both directions at the same time.
It is pretty banal (though still important) to point out that signs are themselves material and, thus, have a kind of life and independence of their own.
Signs, as obstinately material, never quite do what we want them to do, never quite say what we want them to say, never quite go where we want them to go. There is always some gap between what we thought we meant to say, what the sign does, and what the other receives. There is always a bit of “creative” translation involved as these gaps are negotiated. Meaning is the concrete result of this often ad hoc, material process of semiotic compromise and negotiation.
But the materiality of signs is only half of what I mean by “material semiotics” and, I think, the more familiar, “post-modern” half.
It is true that signs must be qualified by matter – we must recognize their material autonomy (and, hence, their “errancy”) – but, I’m claiming, it is perhaps even more important to recognize the semiological character of matter itself.
2. The Epistemological Trap
If we recognize the material character of signs but not the semiological character of matter, then we’ll remain stuck within a “representational” notion of signs. That is to say, we’ll end up thinking that the “gap” between me, the sign, and the recipient is an epistemological gap.
This, I think, is not the way to go.
If the gap is fundamentally epistemological, if the gap is fundamentally a mark of my inability to ever really know or say or articulate the solid and unified reality of the world as it actually is, then every negotiation and compromise necessitated by the material character of the sign will always indicate a failure on our part. If our willful, material, and compromised signs are about representing the uncompromising reality of the world, then they will always and inevitably fail. Such is the much ballyhooed postmodern predicament.
3. A Semiotic Materialism
Enter the qualification of matter by semiotics. It’s my claim that not only are signs material, but that matter is itself semiotic. (Or, perhaps more modestly, that semiotic relationships are not different in kind from any other kind of material relationship.)
This is to say that, when we speak and use signs, we are not engaging in a practice that is foreign to the materials of which speak. Signs are not a way of “overlaying” material reality with a “representational” system that will hopefully more or less “fit” the way things actually are.
Rather, signs are just another variation on the way that all material things - that is, all real things – interact with and relate to one another.
Any entity really relating to any other entity in any conceivable way is doing essentially the same thing that signs do: they are crossing gaps and creating relationships by compromising, translating, and negotiating a relationship that produces a connection between the parties even as it fails to exhaustively unify them.
Here, the gap between a sign and a thing (or a thing and a thing!) is not a representational or epistemological gap. Rather, the gap between signs and things (just as with things and things!) is ontological in character.
In this sense, a material semiotics breaks with a classical understanding of the “material” world on a key point:
Where a classical materiality assumes the automatic, underlying, and substantial compatibility of all material things with one another - such that Nature is always already treated as a single, unified field and our representations of it can only weakly and unsuccessfully hope to mimic this original unity in a fragmentary way – a material semiotics assumes that matter itself (not just our representation of it!) is fundamentally multiple, fragmentary and heterogeneous.
On this view, material stuff can be brought into relationship with other material stuff, but only with a great deal of work and only by way of translations, compromises, negotiations, etc. that respect the multiplicity, autonomy and material irreducibility of each existing thing.
When a carpenter builds a house, when a tree makes sap, when a bacterium reproduces, they each must engage in the same difficult work of negotiation and translation and this work is always only tentative, fragile, and in need of repetition.
Here, hermeneutics is not qualitatively different from photosynthesis.
4. The Upshot
The upshot of this position is that if matter is itself semiotic, then when we negotiate and translate by way of signs we are not betraying reality but engaging in the very same work that makes anything that is real be real. In other words, in a material semiotics, hermeneutic compromise is not a failed representation of the real but just another mode of more or less successful engagement with it.
Because reality itself is not already a smooth, unified field but a broken and fragmentary network of heterogeneous matter, the broken and fragmentary character of signs and hermeneutics positively confirms rather than negatively denies the legitimacy (and necessity) of the interpretive endeavor.
What does all of this have to do with hermeneutics? Here is a brief summary of some critical implications that follow from a material semiotics:
1. All interpretive work is inherently creative and productive. It may involve repetition, but it must repeat with a difference. It doesn’t just represent something that is already there, but always makes something new. And, crucially, this making something new is now understood as a good thing.
2. Interpretive work is real ontological work, not just representational, epistemological work. It is as real as building a house or running telephone wire. It gathers, collects, collates, aligns, translates, negotiates differences, creates alliances, defines oppositions, sets up tensions, lays out networks, and demands perpetual upkeep just like any other material endeavor.
3. The measure of an interpretation’s success is not its representational “correspondence” with an already smoothly connected reality, but its ability to produce stable and durable (though not perfect or effortlessly permanent) connections between hetergeneous and “naturally” fragmentary groups of stuff. The larger the scale of the connections and the more durable and self-sustaining the connections, the more successful, real, and truthful the interpretation is.
A key caveat, here, to this third point: the success of an interpretation is not just dependent on the number of humans that it is able to effectively convince but (at least as importantly) on the number of nonhumans that it is able to effectively gather, connect with, and persuade. If all human beings (perhaps even together with some gods and angels!) agree that dogs can fly but neither the dogs nor gravity are convinced by your proposed interpretation, then it’s not a very good reading. Because material relations are themselves semiological, all the material stuff out there in the world has to be persuaded by your reading as well.
You may offer a brilliant, popularly-supported reading of Genesis 1 as requiring that the earth be 6000 years old, but if 4.5 billion years worth of rocks and weather disagree – well, sorry, but you’re out of luck.
What I like about this approach is that (1) it removes from the hermeneutic endeavor itself the stain of any “original sin” of representational betrayal, (2) it takes hermeneutic work seriously as real ontological work, (3) it takes seriously and positively the need for ongoing interpretive network building, (4) it doesn’t arbitrarily insulate our interpretive work from the real world but, instead, construes it as just another variation of the only kind of work that is real, and (5) it allows us to view this ongoing, interpretive work of building larger and larger networks of material (human and nonhuman) things as part and parcel of that divine work of that God is himself perpetually engaged in.