Interpretive and attentive reading as modern spiritual exercises in self-rule

The exercises of interpretation have been one of my central cultural and scholarly interests.  I consider interpretation a major spiritual technology empowering the modern self to practice ethical self-rule as duty and submission.  My studies of classical listening in this blog are a major part of my explorations of interpretive conduct.

Recently I was very glad to discover a significant convergence between my genealogical writings and Caleb Smith’s fascinating work on modern “disciplines of attention.”  I will illustrate the similarities between our projects by quoting, first from Smith’s paper, and then, from my book subtitled Anatomy of Interpretation (1993).  Issues such as Protestant hermeneutics, secular reading, self-rule, and ethical practice prevail in both.

‘In this essay I offer a genealogy of attentive reading as a secular spiritual exercise. … Our disciplines of attention were born, I argue, when reformers trained in an Anglo-Protestant tradition reconceived ancient religious practices for the purposes of secular pedagogy and self-culture, as a remedy to the psychic damage wrought by modernity. … Anglo-Protestant educators … revised the disciplines of attention in significant ways. … Sketching a chapter from the history of attention’s disciplines, I consider how they came to be understood as therapeutic and ethical practices for the refashioning of the self. … [D]istinctly modern, secular conditions [seemed] to call for a discipline of attention, as if we could remedy the harm that the world has done to us by regulating our ways of taking the world into ourselves.  The new spiritual exercises promised to repair the damage history does to the self — not by remaking historical conditions but by retraining will and perception.  They are disciplines, but they are also therapeutic and ethical practices, in Michel Foucault’s sense.  They appear to be concerned mainly with the relation between a subject and an external object (especially the object known as the text), but their real preoccupation is one’s relation to oneself.  In our modern spiritual exercises, as in those of the ancients, “one is called upon to take oneself as an object of knowledge and a field of action, so as to transform, correct, and purify oneself, and find salvation” [Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, p. 42].  Some of the new modes of cultivating attention … were animated in part by a desire to wrest control of the mind’s capacities away from religious authorities.  But they also extended the reach of Anglo-Protestant techniques of self-governance… The institutionalization and mass distribution of the disciplines of attention can be counted among the processes by which, as Gil Anidjar has written, Christianity “reincarnated itself as secular” [“Secularism,” Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2006, p. 60]. … Disciplines of attention seek to restore the self’s agency and to display a kind of ethical virtue … They end up reasserting, not abandoning, the individual critic’s claim to ethical authority.  Cultivating a “willingness to attend” is a paradoxical business: an act of self-opening that is also an effect of self-mastery.  Attending is surrendering — but willfully’ (Caleb Smith: “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age,” Critical Inquiry, Summer 2019, pp. 887-9).

Below are three excerpts on textual interpretation from my book The Rise of Eurocentrism (1993).

‘This discipline of communion (which oversees the supreme secular rite [i.e., the communion of verbal forms]) is not imposed from above, from outside, but is bestowed upon, granted to the faithful when its potential (reason) is recognized in the structure of their minds.  Its goal is to train people in literalism so that they may receive through reading the body of forms, the spirit of letters.  Those people, however, might not be enticed to accept the present of the grace, the gift of an (evangelized) present moment of unmediatedness, if it were not for a promise of freedom, of personal (specifically, spiritual) liberation from subservience to every (other) worldly authority, from worldliness itself, so that humans can now begin doing things with, or even to, this world. Interpretation promised emancipation: acceptance and independence in the civic society.  The community of independent interpretation was going to build the kingdom of God on earth (and share it with those qualified).  This contract of emancipation through interpretation, of redemption through the letter of the form—this civic covenant proposed by the European middle class marks the inauguration of modernity. By this contract, Christianity abandoned eternal time in exchange for a pledged present’ (Lambropoulos, “Preface: The Rule of Autonomy,” xi).

‘If personal Biblical reading was the first act of church disobedience, it was also the first act of civil obedience—the declaration of individuality.  In interpretation, a new technology of the self emerged: the interiorization and privatization of meaning.  From another viewpoint, it may also be said that in interpretation a new technology of governance emerged: the self as the depth of secular meaning.  In both cases, the practices of interpretation, succeeding the rituals of exegesis, promise the emancipation of knowledge from the coercion of outside authority to the extent that it can earn its independence—to the extent that knowledge can achieve its autonomy by judiciously governing (and guarding) itself, by scrupulously observing the rules that it has itself chosen to follow.  The law of immanence which rules the secular order—“the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1.25)—is the regime of truth that characterizes modernity.  As a subject of continuous and fierce contention, this law is claimed at different times by various political paradigms, from rationality to aesthetics and from empiricism to communism.  Its presence, however, in the requirement of intrinsic understanding and the promise of liberation is unmistakably manifest’ (Lambropoulos, “Chapter 1:  The Rites of Interpretation,” 28).

‘The practices of contemplative disposition, better known as manners, taste, and style, are the forms of aesthetic conduct.  The appropriate public order, the disposition of a shared public culture, was not a question of who should have access to the temples of discrimination but of what was the required attitude entitling one to such access. Thus the first realm regulated by the principles of autonomous rationality was that of public conduct, of the behavior of the emancipated individual who acts as a responsible reader, one who is capable of personal interpretation.  The public conduct of the reader expresses the introjection of the law, the assimilation of the interpretive dogma.  Since the aesthetic is autonomous self- realization (and its own reflection), the highest bourgeois ideal was to live autonomously, developing human possibility to the fullest according to the organic laws of its divine nature’ (Lambropoulos, “Epilegomena to Modernity,” 328).

18 August 2019

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