When Interpreting, Avoid Relativism (Because I Think So)

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So that we avoid the major problem of relativism, heed the following warnings:

  • If you don’t happen to resemble an author’s audience, don’t attack the audience that writer appealed to
  • What I often see in essays based on model reading assignments is reactive rather than flexible reading.  For instance, I often teach skeptic Michael Shermer’s book The Science of Good and Evil.  In online discussion posts, I’ll see people react with “Well, he is sarcastic but people already agreeing with him would find that funny.  I just find it offensive.”  Then the student writer proceeds to do that Samuel L. Jackson “Allow me to retort” move from Pulp Fiction (Tarantino), trying to match snarkiness with Shermer or to refute him.  When they get really desperate, they go to the web and find attack sites.  “Allow me to retort!” is not our purpose in most academic writing.  Later in the course, though, we will cover refutals, which are appropriately-handled counterarguments.
  • “It’s true for me” doesn’t work here.  I see this happen a lot in definition or rhetorical analysis essays that often start courses.  If the writing is rhetorical analysis, cut out one’s views from this process . . .  it is supposed to be about form, not content, so if you start getting too much into content, you’re not doing a formal analysis.  In fact, to the extent that you go off (or gush in support) at the writer, you’re not doing your job of analyzing.  And definitions—while they may not seem arguable—actually contain areas of genuine, ongoing disagreement that we would do well to recognize.
  • Academic writing is public, not private.  Don’t overuse I or you.  Filtering this through the self is a bad idea.  As Charlton Heston says of the mystery food in the movie Soylent Green “It’s people!” (Fleischer).  Don’t serve us yourself . . . your friend Willie Wonka says “But that is called cannibalism, my dear children, and is in fact frowned upon in most societies” (Burton).  I’m having fun with this, but the idea remains: The chapter is the source, not the self.  Subjectivism pushes discussion only through our limited selves.
I realize I am only going against the whole of American culture by stating this. . .

In interpreting literature, you may be right. . .  just not only because you think so!

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