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Posted By Subaltern Queer

Could Any of These Men Be Gay?

The CIA Can Help You Spot the Queer Ones!
Could Any of These Men Be Gay?

You might think "this has got to be some kind of joke" when I say that, in 1980, the CIA put out a memo to its agents titled "Homosexual Investigations," which gave instructions on how to identity a homosexual perp (that's police talk for 'perpetrator'). But it's quite real: here is the link to the official page:

What were the motivations for such investigations? While some partial motivations will emerge as we go along, it is hard not to think that it had something to do with the 1980 Democratic Party officially supporting the gay and lesbian communities.

While you may want to peruse the actual CIA document for yourself, what follows are some choice quotations along with a bit of commentary.

1. Let's start with the basics: "One of the most common mistakes made by the average person is the conviction that he can recognize a homosexual on sight. This is similar to recognizing a Communist. The subject has a mental or emotional problem rather than a physical one. There is no way to spot a homosexual." As you can see from the exclusivistic language, homosexual men are the subject of this treatise, rather than the LGBTQ+ community at large (which, to be fair to the CIA, did not exist as such at the time). The reason is, I think, rather clear. Male homosexuals were viewed by the CIA as threats to the established order in the same way that the Nazis saw male homosexuals as a threat to the Third Reich (more on this in another post). Did you notice that the comparison term is 'communist' (again, this is 1980--nine years before the fall of the USSR). The implication is clear: both male homosexuals and communists are threats to the American way of life. But the CIA is clearly right about gays and communists in one respect. Neither come pre-packaged with 'gay' or 'communist' on their foreheads. The CIA notes that "very few employees come to work wearing eye makeup or 'My Sin'." Glad we cleared that up!

2. "The homosexual has a problem. He may not consider himself 'queer', he may accept his psychological deviation from the normal, but he recognizes that society frowns on him." The document goes on to say that a homosexual "often uses the word 'problem' in discussing his own homosexuality or that of one of his friends." But I think this is, again, the CIA putting words in other people's mouths. Let's be quite clear about one thing: the 'problem'  that a homosexual poses is a clear and very real threat to white patriarchy. As a gay man, I do not 'fit' the stereotype of the true 'masculine' man and so the entire order--in which women and people of colour are subjugated--is put into question. A gay man is, in one important sense, as much as a threat as a communist to the American white patriarchal order.

3. "The homosexual is usually regarded as an above-average employee. His work habits are good, he is punctual, responsive to authority, cooperative, friendly, a credit to the organization." You can see the problem right away. Gays work hard, get along with others, and make the organization look good. No wonder their fellow employees hate them! When I taught at Wheaton College, I was clearly the most popular philosophy department member and I also published more than all of my philosophy colleagues combined. I simply had to be eliminated. No good deed goes unpunished.

4. "But our subject leads a Jekyll-Hyde existence . . . . He frequently uses a Post Office Box . . . . His telephone number is often unlisted . . . . His car (preferably foreign) is often reserved for weekends." One could simply note that homosexuals were far ahead of the curve. Most smart people got unlisted phone numbers ages ago. 1980 was the nadir of the American auto--they were junk back then. But notice the subtle CIA inference: gays drive foreign cars because they're unAmerican. In any case, this may explain why my first car was a BMW and, since then, I've driven VWs. There are a lot of gays in Germany--maybe driving a German car makes you gay. It could also have something to do with the fact that I always drive stick.

5. "Our subject is intimately acquainted with a life totally unknown to society in general. He has his own language, his own social customs and mores." I have to say that I wonder what this "life totally unknown" might be. It sounds so exciting--please, Dorothy, take me there with you and Toto! Alas, I think this other life may be the product of CIA hallucination. But the CIA has some very helpful instructions for the 'secret' language of the homosexual. We're told that 'gay' "is the most common term in the deviate's vocabulary." What could 'gay' possibly mean? Fortunately, the CIA clears up any confusion: '"gay' means homosexual." Oh, how interesting! 'Gay' is "used to describe people, places, (favorite hangouts), parties, and groups." So it's a multi-purpose term. Now, here's where things get more complicated. 'Bi' means "interested equally in homosexual and heterosexual activities." 'Straight' is "the opposite of gay." The CIA agent, though, knows exactly how to use these terms in investigative research. We're told: "The question 'Are you gay, straight, or bi?' has been used with marked success in interviews of suspected homosexuals." How someone responds to the question will indicate if the person is a deviate. Really? That question doesn't sound all that promising.

6. Here's another sure-fire way to find out if someone is a homosexual: "One of the recently popular introductory remarks is 'Aren't you Jack from the North?' "The other party is supposed to answer 'No, I'm Joe (or any other name) from the North." So that explains why I'm gay: I'm Canadian! Does that mean I only actually became gay when I was living in Germany (!) and took the oath of allegiance to Canada? After all, I did pledge my allegiance to the Queen. Maybe I got mixed up regarding which queen that was supposed to be. Of course, the CIA document goes on to make things considerably more complicated: because it tells us that one can substitute any name for Joe and any direction for North. "The word 'North' (or South, East, West Coast, etc.) is the code word. It means homosexual." Here I think the average CIA agent might get confused. If I say, 'no, I'm Bruce from Scotland' rather than 'no, I'm Bruce from the North' will the agent still 'get it'?

7. Homosexuals "are abnormal mentally and emotionally; their behavior patterns are, therefore, completely abnormal and unpredictable." To 'illustrate', the CIA tell us that homosexuals do not "fall into distinct categories of male and female. . . . Many homosexuals fall into both categories. It is not uncommon for two extremely effeminate (or extremely masculine) homosexuals to participate in sex relations with each other." Perhaps we need to get Judith Butler in to give a talk to the CIA, but their examination of the categories of male and female need some work.

8. "Landlords often encourage rentals to homosexuals since they are neat, generally quiet, interested in keeping their apartments in good condition, and dependable when it comes to finances." What's interesting about this sentence is that it appears in a paragraph about why it is difficult to 'detect' and 'prosecute' homosexuals. Why would the CIA be investigating people who they describe as neat, quiet, tidy, and financially stable? Again, this is 1980. Pennsylvania banned sexual orientation in public sector employment in 1975; Wisconsin became the first state to ban sexual orientation discrimination in both public and private sectors in 1982. Today, only twenty-three (23) of the fifty (50) states ban such discrimination. Illinois is one of those states, which is why Wheaton needed to acuse me of not being able to sign the doctrinal statement rather than the real reason of my homosexuality. In those twenty-seven states, you can openly and explicitly fire someone for 'acting' gay or even 'suspecting' someone of being gay.

9. The CIA likes Socrates! "To detect [the homosexual] it is vital that the investigator be inquisitive." Such questions include: "Are all of his references women?" and "Does a male reference have the same address as the employee?" Talk about really shrewd and cunning questions! You can see why the CIA is so good at its job.


Posted By Subaltern Queer

A few days ago, I received the following provocative email:

Dear List members

Apologies for cross posting, please find below details on a major international conference happening at St Patrick’s College Maynooth on the Future of Christian thinking.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, Christian thought faces unprecedented challenges; ranging from a denial of metaphysics, to previously unforeseen ethico-moral questions arising from contemporary science and ever-advancing technologies, to a full-blown economizing of the political, to name just some of the most obvious. Couple this with the fact that amongst Christian thinkers there is no real consensus on the meaning, definition and end of Christian thinking and the future of Christian thinking looks hazy, unclear and tenuous.

The theme of this conference seeks to think from out of these unprecedented challenges while, simultaneously, straining to look into a nebulous and unforeseen future. In order to do this, a vast array of many of the foremost thinkers engaged with Christian thought and beyond have been invited to speak on these issues. These thinkers are representative of many different schools, approaches and styles of Christian thought, across confessional divides. The vast array of thinkers invited is itself a testimony of the polyphonic vitality of Christian thought today and, together, the ever-pressing question of the future of Christian thinking will be pondered from within an intellectually polyphonic and ecumenical conversation and perspective.

Speakers include: Rowan Williams, David Bently Hart, Eleonore Stump, Robert George, Cyril O’Regan and more.

For more details including how to register please follow the link:

No one can deny that Christianity "faces unprecedented challenges." I was thrilled by the idea of a conference that includes "a vast array of many of the foremost thinkers engaged with Christian thought and beyond" who are "representative of many different schools, approaches and styles of Christian thought, across confessional divides."

So I decided to click on that link, which led me to the following poster:

The Future of Christian Thinking

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the people who were to speak at the conference actually didn't constitute a 'vast array' and that they clearly did not 'represent many different schools, approaches and styles of Christian thought, across confessional divides'. Instead​, this sounded like a very insular gathering.

So I decided to contact Gaven Kerr, who had sent the email, and provide my 'candid' appraisal of the upcoming event:

Dear Professor Kerr,

As I look at the list of speakers invited for your conference listed on your website, it becomes crystal clear why the future of Christianity is so dim and unpromising. A number of these people are friends of mine! Yet you speak of a ‘vast array of thinkers’ who have been invited. To me this simply looks like the usual suspects, most of whom hold pretty similar views about many things. Who will be simply talking to themselves. And no one else will care.

They do not represent ‘many different schools, approaches and styles of Christian thought’. But I do get the point that the conversation will be polyphonic. However, in this case, polyphonic simply means “as long as you ‘blend’ in with what everyone else is saying then we’ll accept you into our little club.”

The future of Christianity is that many millions of people in the west no longer have any interest in that club and have long felt that no one in the club was interested in hearing their voices since they don’t blend into the ‘approved’ polyphony. Your conference only confirms that they’re right. One might say that your conference performs the future of Christianity.

But have a lovely club meeting. Perhaps you can come up with a secret handshake that signifies both solidarity and exclusivity. You can also rearrange the deck chairs as the club sinks.

Bruce Ellis Benson





Posted By Subaltern Queer

Creolization as Cultural Creativity

Improvising Jazz

At what point does jazz become 'jazz', rather than the blues or ragtime, out of which it clearly grew? To the extent that we can meaningfully speak of a 'beginning' of jazz, we must immediately acknowledge that it is improvised from the start out of two types of alterity—musical and ethnic. On the one hand, there are striking similarities between jazz and ethnic European music. On the other hand, jazz contains distinctly African-American and African elements, such as syncopation and call-and-response patterns. African music tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack—as does jazz. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term “heterophônia” literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

If improvisation takes place by using whatever is available, then what is on hand in the case of jazz are Black spirituals, ragtime, European folk music, and even opera. For instance, in an interview Louis Armstrong sings the beginning of “Serenade” from Romberg’s The Student Prince and then says: “That’s jazz. That’s the way I look at it. Anything you can express to the public is jazz.” The heterophony of jazz is due to its fundamental openness to heteronomy or alterity in which new improvisational possibilities are continually opening up. And the alterity within jazz is as much ethnic as musical. Although the history of jazz has usually been written in terms of black and white, there are at least three racial identities early on in jazz. It is this third category—Creoles of color or gens de couleur—that undermines the binary of racial opposition. Whereas Creoles musicians were often more familiar with the European musical tradition and thus better at reading music, Blacks were better at improvising. As Creoles and Blacks began to integrate (in the 1890’s), they began to influence one another musically, the result being a musical 'Creolization'. Creole culture serves as a metaphor for understanding the development of jazz. Musically, Creoles occupied a space somewhere between white European and African-American music—and that 'betweenness' helped open up a space for white musicians. While we think of improvisation in jazz as improvisation upon 'tunes', the improvisation on musical styles is both historically and ontologically prior—and key to understanding how jazz operates. Moreover, the development of jazz (including the improvisation upon tunes) is the story of continual improvisation upon itself.

Improvising Christianity

This sort of improvised beginning is remarkably similar to that of what we now call Christianity. Like the story of jazz, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Jesus appears in the midst of a heteronomous Judaism comprised of Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and Essenes—all of whom took the Torah as their text but each with varying interpretations. Jesus himself takes no stand with any of these groups. Instead, demonstrating a keen knowledge of the Torah, he improvises upon the conventional readings of it. Of course, in so doing, Rabbi Jesus is continuing a long-established Jewish practice of textual improvisation. What distinguishes his improvisations is their radicality and the authority with which he speaks. Jesus’ voice does not merely join a polyphony of rabbinic voices but proves heterophonic. One of his constant refrains is “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “But I say unto you.” Even though Jesus qualifies these radical statements with the statement “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill” (Matt. 5:17), to his audience this would have sounded like a strange fulfillment indeed. And Jesus does not merely confine his improvising to the commandments of the Torah. He likewise appropriates its imagery for his own stories. The parable of the vineyard (Mark. 12:1-12), for example, is clearly based on the “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1-7. While there are important points of similarity, Jesus does not merely retell the same story. For Jesus’ version is primarily about himself. Thus, Jesus—a master improviser on Old Testament texts—inscribes a new reading within an old one, affirming both but transforming the old so that it can no longer be read in the same way. The improvisation that Jesus exemplifies could be described in terms of Derrida’s “iterability,” which he describes as “alterability of this same idealized in the singularity of the event, for instance, in this or that speech act. It entails the necessity of thinking at once both the rule and the event, concept and singularity.” The point of iterability is that citation is always at once repetition and transformation. In effect, Jesus repeats and alters. Such is the nature of improvisation.

The improvisatory interpretive practice exemplified by Jesus necessarily becomes part of the very fabric of Christianity as it grows. For, as Christ’s followers fulfilled the great commission of Matthew 28, the gospel spread to increasing wider and differing circles. Whereas Jesus had preached largely in the countryside and to peasant Jews, the fledging ekklêsia took Jerusalem as its center. With the conversions of Barnabas and Paul, the faith spread considerably wider. This expansion required a new interpretation of the faith and a new ethnic conception of who could be included in the ekklêsia. In effect, Paul served as the Christian 'Creole'—a Hellenized Jew, educated in the Torah, a Roman citizen, and a missionary to Greeks and Romans alike. It is this 'betweenness' of Paul and the conception of Christianity upon which he insists that makes it possible for many of us today to be included. In proclaiming that “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28), in effect Paul pushes for what has been recently called a “’kreolized’ identity—a revolutionary new cultural and social identity” (Fred Wei-han Ho, “’Jazz’, Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century,” in Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, 134). But this 'betweenness' is what made Christianity 'translatable' beyond narrow Jewish boundaries. As Lamin Sanneh puts it:

Christianity, from its origins, identified itself with the need to translate out of Aramaic and Hebrew, and from that position came to exert a dual force in its historical development. One was the resolve to relativize its Judaic roots . . . . The other was to destigmatize Gentile culture and adopt that culture as a natural extension of the life of the new religion (Translating the Message, 1).



Posted By Subaltern Queer

Kind of Blue Picture
Why Wright Gets Improvisation Wrong

Part Three

There are several reasons why Wright's improvisation metaphor fails. First, he is remarkably ignorant about improvisation, in at least three respects.

1) He assumes that he and musicians just 'know' what improvisation is. He writes: "As musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where 'anything goes', but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue" (Scripture and the Authority of God, 127). When Wright published the article (1991) on which his later writing is based, many musicians knew precious little about improvisation. So "as musicians know" was simply incorrect, since many musicians didn't know and often still don't. Perhaps we could amend that to read "as precious few musicians know." Much of my published work has been designed to help people understand improvisation. Considering how many requests I still receive to contribute chapters and articles on the subject, improvisation continues to be studied.

2) Due to his ignorance, Wright provides a conception of improvisation that is incoherent. He is right about listening to all of the other voices, but that quotation from him continues with "at the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voice around us, to expressionss, provide that will eventualy lead to the ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal." This is a classic example of something that sounds lovely--until you look at it more closely. We are supposed to be listening to all the voices and to be 'fully obedient' to the 'ultimate resolution' as found in the New Testament. How is this supposed to work? What if not all of the voices are singing the same tune or are not fully in harmony? Wright does not provide an explicit way of adjudicating such disagreement, except by the vague ideal of the goal of the New Testament. What exactly is this goal? My worry is that here Wright has 'written' his particular part for the musical improvisation, which is that of telling us what that goal is. One cannot help but hear N.T. Wright trying to be the 'voice' of Paul and trying deperately to drown out all of the other voices. When Wright says he wants 'debte', that is correct. Unfortunately, debate is about spectacle, rhetorical tricks, and disingenuity. Argument is something different. Wright chooses debate over argument.

3) Wright has also used the improvisational idea of experienced Shakespearean actors being provided with the script of a play by Shakespeare that is missing the final act. They are called upon to 'faithfully' create that act. But it doesn't take much knowledge of the history of Shakespearean performance of plays that are fully written to realize that those performances vary remarkably. I believe that Wright is right to say that such actors could well improvise a final act. But he seriously underestimates the sheer scope for variation.

A second basic problem is that Wright wants to choose which aspects of improvisation he likes and ignore the rest--something related to ignorance. Establishing what counts as 'fidelity' is remarkably more complicated than it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. One can be 'true' to the letter or the spirit of a text. Sometimes they are one and the same, but often choosing letter or spirit is simply a choice, one that may have an exegetical basis but nothing like 'proof'. As I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers have been precisely about the true meaning of fidelity. The problem here is that questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

I have already written what I view as a rebuke to Wright. Since I was at that time still under the wary gaze of the Evangelical Magisterium, I couldn't put it quite as bluntly as that. Still, my chapter titled "Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities": Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophony, and the Ekklêsia" is designed as a way to subvert Wright's view. I do so by insisting on 'heterophony'. Given that jazz is the fusion of African and European musical traditions, it both accepts and subverts musical conventions. Jazz tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term 'heterophônia' literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

In jazz, the result is that the very parameters of what counts as a 'faithful' improvsiation have themselves been altered and are constantly being improvised. The kinds of chords I regularly play--that include flat 5s, sharp 11s, 13s, and so much more--go far beyond anything Mozart could have conceived of as 'harmonious'. Wright is, I think, working with a notion of polyphony and he is attempting to be 'open' about its possibilities. But music advances harmonically when we start to hear notes that were once simply 'wrong' as creating new harmonic possibilities. Dixieland jazz is about as close as we get to 'original' jazz (since no one really knows what 'original' jazz sounded like, we can't be sure), but it's really boring. However, jazz gloriously develops over the twentieth-century to include swing, bebop, cool, free, fusion, and many things that don't really have a proper name. A very important aspect of that development involves African-Americans who have used jazz to protest and subvert 'values' that privilege white people socially, economically, religiously, and culturally.

Although Wright has only responded to the voices of LGBTQ+ Christians sporadically, when he does he tends toward the tactic of debate rather than argument. Let me conclude by focusing on two points he makes that seem highly problematic, both in themselves and when put together. On the one hand, he claims that marriage has always been (as in 'everywhere and at all times') heterosexual in nature. The convenience of such a claim should be clear: no one can argue otherwise, since no one knows what all cultures have thought of 'marriage' (or even whether all cultures have had this concept, which is dubious). On the other hand, Wright claims that Paul was remarkably astute regarding sexual relationships and understood all of the possible permutations thereof. Does that mean that Paul would have been able to envision gay marriage? If marriage has always been only conceivable heterosexually, then Paul would not have been able to conceive of same-sex marriage. Which means he cannot be seen as addressing it anywhere in his writings. Or else Paul could have conceived of such marriage, in which case his writings could be read (though not necessarily) as addressing it. But that puts the universal conception of marriage as being by definition heterosexual in question. As I say, both of these claims are highly problematic and unsubstantiated simply in themselves. However, there seems to be no way of putting them together.

As Ira Gershwin memorably puts it, "something's gotta give."

Posted By Subaltern Queer

Classical Conductor

Does Tom Wright Get Improvisation Wrong?

Part Two

To continue our discussion from Part One, we need to consider the distinction between performance and improvisation.

Let's start with Stephen Barton’s observation:

In recent study of the nature of NT interpretation, considerable attention in certain circles has been given to the possibility that there is one metaphor that is particularly appropriate for articulating what NT interpretation involves. It is the metaphor of performance.[1]

There are a couple of crucial implications to construing NT interpretation (and biblical interpretation in general) in terms of performance. First, to say that interpretation takes the form of 'performance' is to claim that scriptural texts are 'brought to life' by way of performance in the sense that do not fully exist except in the moments either of being authored or those of being read and understood. Without doubt, texts certainly exist apart form being read and understood. For our purposes here, I will take a text to be 'the putting into writing of an author’s intended meaning'. But 'un-interpreted' texts—while they exist—have only 'potential' meanings. It takes an interpreter to 'revive' their meaning (literally, 'bring it to life'). This ontological claim concerning the being of a text inevitably leads us to a second ontological claim, viz., that interpreters or readers are necessary not only for a text to have meaning but also for it simply to be in its fullest sense. If written texts are dependent upon both authors and interpreters for their existence as texts, then texts do not have an independent but rather a dependent existence—yet still an existence in which text and interpretation do not merely collapse into one another.

Second, in the same way that performance of musical or theatrical works can be characterized as having varying levels of fidelity, so biblical 'performances' have varying levels of fidelity. Some performances are simply more faithful to the text than others. However, establishing 'fidelity' is not quite as simple as it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. So the question is not just one of levels of fidelity but also one of kinds of fidelity. I think Frances Young is right in comparing disagreements in biblical interpretation to those in the 'authenticity movement' in music.[2] But, in making that comparison, we have not necessarily solved any interpretational difficulties. For, as I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers tend to be about the true meaning of fidelity.[3] As we will see, questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

While the metaphor of performance is undoubtedly helpful in thinking about the act of interpretation, it seems to me that it almost gets interpretation right—but not quite. In one sense, the idea of 'performance' seems appropriate for thinking about interpretation because 'to perform' is defined as “to finish making, to complete the construction of.”[4] Even though performance requires 'execution' of what is notated (whether in words or musical notes), performers clearly add something to whatever they interpret. In terms of musical pieces, performers may need to make decisions regarding tempi, attack, vibrato, instrumentation, and many other aspects.

Roman Ingarden describes this aspect of musical texts in terms of “Unbestimmtheitsstellen”—places of indeterminacy.[5] But it is not just musical texts that have such points of indeterminacy. Even E.D. Hirsch, Jr.—a strong advocate of construing textual meaning by way of the intent of the author—recognizes this point. Although Hirsch points out that any communication requires a certain degree of 'determinacy', he is all too well aware that such determinacy only goes so far. To quote him:

Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their determinacy: they are what they are—namely ambiguous and imprecise—and they are not univocal and precise.[6]

In regard to musical scores, musicologists often refer to this lack of precision as 'underdetermination'. That is, scores do not provide enough information to actually perform the work. One must know what to do with the notes on the page, and that knowledge comes only by being steeped in a performance practice or tradition. But the imprecision of texts—musical and otherwise—could likewise be construed by what I term 'overdetermination'. In other words, scores and texts generally provide more possibilities than could be realized in simply one interpretation. So a symphony can be performed with deep feeling or machine-like precision and a novel like Middlemarch can be read as a character study or a discourse on morals. The degree of 'over' and 'under'-determination, of course, is dependent upon the genre. Whereas writers of technical manuals attempt—as much as possible—to avoid both aspects, poets often exploit them. Yet interpretation always requires determination. Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that this need for 'determination' is particularly evident in translations. No matter how much the translator wishes to remain faithful to the original text, “every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original.”[9] Similarly, we can say that every interpretation says both more and less than the original text.

So is interpretation inherently improvisational in nature? More to come...

[1] Stephen C. Barton, “New Testament Interpretation as Performance,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999): 179.

[2] Francis Young, Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and Interpretation (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1993),24. 

[3] See my discussion of differing notions of “fidelity” in the authenticity movement in The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 96-124.

[4] For the various definitions of “perform” or “performance” used in this and the following paragraph, see the OED s.v. “perform.”

[5] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art: The Musical Work—The Picture—The Architectural Work—The Film, trans. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 90.

[6] E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 44.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), p. 386.