Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Learning to misread

Quentin Skinner rejects the idea of "understanding authors as they understood themselves," because how could we ever know? I never really paid much attention to how I read things when I was an undergraduate; rather, I picked up the strange form of telepathy practiced by analytic philosophers, where the text is merely some kind of mediating fetish object in the transfer of ideas from mind to mind (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Then I got beaten about the head by Quentin Skinner (figuratively; he’s actually a perfect gentleman, of course), and encouraged to think about how to read as it were self-consciously, paying attention to what it might mean that certain words and turns of phrase were chosen instead of others. But what I’d really like is to learn how to misread.

Leo Strauss claims to be able to discern the "esoteric" meanings of the great philosophers. Of course, there are certain sorts of misreading I’m not interested in, such as the Straussian approach. The central Straussian assumption is that great texts have a hidden, esoteric, meaning, available only to the philosopher. This supposed cynicism is actually an extraordinary gullibility; like bad psychoanalysis or bad ideology critique, Straussians are fooled by the oldest trick in the book, the idea that there is a “true meaning” behind the apparent meaning. Of course, this ends up with thing like reading Plato and saying, “the community of goods and women is obviously morally repugnant, Plato couldn’t possibly have meant it”; in other words, going to all the trouble of reading a 2000 year old work to come up with the same conclusions you already held. A properly cynical reading, by contrast, knows that people always say exactly what they mean, often without even knowing it.

But there’s another sort of misreading, not motivated by a desire to impute some true meaning to a text, indeed quite cheerfully unconcerned with questions of correct or incorrect meaning; Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche, or Badiou’s book on Deleuze, strike me as good examples of this. What’s interesting is that, while these authors develop their own theory through constructing a questionable interpretation of their source, they are not just arbitrarily coercing their source material to fit their views (as Strauss does); rather, the specific source material they are misreading seems in some way a necessary component of their project. It’s that kind of productive misreading I’d like to master.