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The Rhetoric of Interpretation in Literary Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This is a follow-up to my post, Description, Interpretation, Explanation, and Evaluation as Rhetorical Roles in Literary Criticism [#DH]. I want to take another crack at characterizing the role of interpretation in literary criticism, and in contrast to the roles of description, explanation, and evaluation. I’m thinking something like this: The purpose of interpretation is to translate one’s sense of a literary text into discursive prose.
Why the word “sense”? I don’t want to use “read” (which is over-used in literary criticism) or “experience”, which doesn’t seem quite right. Encounter? Engagement? No better than “sense” and perhaps not as good.
Notice also the use of “translate”. Literary critics and philosophers have made much of the difference between literary texts and ordinary texts. A great deal of attention has been given over to attempts to define the nature of literary texts as opposed to non-literary texts, not always with obvious success. Yet, the feeling persists that there is a difference and that critics must do something about that difference. What they do is write interpretive criticism. And that is an act of translation, a translation from one mode of being, if you will, to another.
So, we now have:
Description sets the terms in which a phenomenon is introduced into discourse and presented for investigation through any of the other three roles.
Interpretation is the process of translating one’s sense of the text’s meaning into discursive prose.
Explanation links description of texts to psychological, neural, and social mechanisms.
Evaluation is the process of relating literary texts to vital human interests. Typically evaluation is based on interpreted meaning.
The distinction between description and interpretation is often fuzzy. In thinking in terms of roles, however, it isn’t necessary to assign a given statement (of whatever length) to one role or another. It can play both roles.

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