The Hermeneutics of T-Shirts

I don’t have Continental Philosophy of Social Science with me, but Sherrat mentions a critic of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who charged that Geertz’s method was not a true hermeneutics because he was “interpreting” practices, not texts, and only actual texts allow legitimate hermeneutic treatment. This is a crucial issue, of course. If only texts can be interpreted, then Being and Time and its intellectual descendents (Geertz among them) are wrong in claiming that everyday behavior is always already interpreted. Obviously where one stands on the relationship between praxis, texts, and interpretation will go a long way in determining how one takes the struggle between interpretation and explanation in the social sciences, which itself is one facet of the naturalists vs. normativists debate we’ve been discussing here. In particular, restricting hermeneutics to texts in a strict sense would disallow the much broader use of hermeneutics I would like to advocate as a synthesizer of interpretive and explanatory accounts of human life.

To give some substance to that suggested use, I’ll offer an example I encountered at the YMCA yesterday. A young woman had on a shirt that said, “Fondy ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” I can come up with some reasonable interpretations pretty fast, and so can you, I would assume. Who among us has forgotten how good bustin’ makes us feel? I suspect that even those not familiar with Fond du Lac, Wisconsin might guess that “Fondy” refers to a school. As for “ghosts,” I’m not sure of the reference. I would guess another local sports team, though I can’t think of one pertinent.

In any case, though, the question is whether this T-shirt is the proper object of intepretation. I would say it is. Does that commit me to the claim that it’s a text? Well, that leads to the question of what a text is. Two ideas: textuality is linked to explicitness (i.e. articulation in language) and to complex organization (with the book as a paradigm example).

For the record, I don’t think one can only (legitimately) interpret texts; I don’t think texts have to have complex organization (in order to merit being interpreted as texts); and I think that paradigm texts (the sort that, say, Gadamer seems to have primarily in mind) nevertheless merit rather different sorts of interpretation than other sorts of texts and non-texts (typically, practices).

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4 Responses to The Hermeneutics of T-Shirts

  1. obiwanky says:

    What do we do with those people who advertise on their bodies. I’ve heard of pregnant women doing this. Is the body then a text to be interpreted? And then what about the intent of the woman — is that to be interpreted?

    And even if we limit ourselves to texts on tee shirts, does the same text on two different people mean the same thing? And what about those things that mothing at all — it was the cheapest shirt at the Goodwill. And don’t even mention the PLain White Tees.

    Finally, what about pcitures — they’re worth a thousand words right? Well, is qa tatoo a picture or a text?

    All of this examples to agree that interpretation is more than about text, or that everything is text in some sense. Also, I like Plain White Tees.

  2. mrsaturdaypants says:

    Random responses:

    I assumed that you were a plain white tee man. Not sure why.

    My pictures are worth only 900 words.

    I heard a few years ago of some baseball player’s ex-wife, I think, trying sell her décolletage (AKA breasts) on eBay as advertizing space. I don’t know what the results were, but I’d like to hear Habermas’s take on this.

    A bit more seriously and wishy-washily, I think things are complicated here. I think it makes sense to say that everything we encounter we interpret, but only if we employ a fairly rich sense of interpretation — one that frequently would not match up with the sorts of textual interpretation that Gadamer, for instance, intended. And I think that’s the best way to put matters. Answering all of the questions we’re raising here would take a while. There are just too many places where one could carelessly say, e.g., “Of course that’s a text,” or “Of course that’s not interpretation.” Again, complicated.

  3. Obiwanky says:

    But, isn’t the point of practices, with its habitus (in Bourdieu’s words) the idea that interpretation lies behind everything, we only know it when the interpretation breaks down– for example, when the practice fails. Someone stands facing the wrong way in an elevator conflicts with the habitus we’ve established.

  4. mrsaturdaypants says:

    I am inclined to agree, yet not. It all depends on what what means by “interpretation.” The word necessarily hints at either an always already explicitness that seems wrong or at a quasi-explicit implicitness that seems equally problematic. And unfortunately, I don’t know a really good way of threading this needle (apologies for my too-frequent-use of that particular figure of speech):

    a. We do take ourselves/our world in particular ways — ways that could be otherwise
    b. Much of this taking is not at all explicit
    c. Neither is it implicit in the sense that it’s just like explicit, only not (this is the target of Turner’s ire in The Social Theory of Practices, and I agree with him)
    d. This neither explicit nor implicit taking is, in some sense, the necessary “background” of our making sense of ourselves, our worlds, our lives, including our making explicit sense via language

    “Interpretation” is probably no more problematic a term for this as any other. But it’s problematic. It generates certain illusions.

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