The Hermeneutical Imperative


Welcome to an unusually brief installment of the Convivial Society. An analogy came to mind, and you can tell me what you think. I vowed to keep it short, under 1,000 words. So this remains suggestive, and I’ll be eager to see if it generates any interesting insights or otherwise proves to be a helpful framing.

In 1979, the late sociologist Peter Berger published a book titled, The Heretical Imperative. As the subtitle explained, it was a book about “the contemporary possibilities of religious affirmation.” According to Berger, any form of religious affirmation in modern societies necessarily arises out of a context of pervasive religious pluralism. In such a context, choosing your religion, or choosing to have none, becomes an imperative. You can’t quite escape the awareness of having made a choice, a choice which could have been otherwise.

As it turns out, the Greek root of the word heresy can be translated as “to choose for one's self.” Thus Berger’s heretical imperative, or the imperative to choose. Unlike in certain pre-modern settings, where you’d likely be born into a religious tradition and live your life in a rather insulated and homogenous social setting that never gave you much occasion to question it, in the modern world getting religion, even if that means remaining faithful to your parent’s faith, is experienced as a choice you’ve made rather than something that is simply given in the nature of things. 

So, just as for Berger the sociological structures of modern society generated the heretical imperative, so, too, I would like to propose, the technological structures of digital media generate the hermeneutical imperative

Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. It critically explores the methods we deploy to interpret texts of all sorts. It’s often associated specifically with the interpretation of religious texts or the modern tradition of philosophical hermeneutics. I’m using the term to suggest that the proliferation of media artifacts and the growing colonization of our experience by varieties of digital mediation have generated an imperative to self-consciously interpret. 

Is that really a new situation, you may ask. Yes and no. It is true, I would grant, that human experience has always been marked by explicit or implicit acts of interpretation. But, three considerations …

(1) Acts of interpretation become more explicit when we confront symbolically encoded human artifacts or media objects. In a walk through the woods, I’m engaged in certain kind of mostly pre-conscious interpretative work—reading the landscape, we might say. Walking through a museum, on the other hand, involves interpretative work of a different and more conscious nature. To the degree that our experience is mediated by digital devices, it takes on the quality of a walk through a (very weird) museum full of works of human artifice calling forth our interpretations. 

(2) Also, if I’m right about our experience of digitization generating a primary experience of the Database rather than the Narrative, then the need to be always interpreting becomes all the more apparent. For one thing, digitally mediated relations themselves become media artifacts and media objects. In the face-to-face company of those we know relatively well, our interpretative labor is less acute. We likely have a repertoire of habitual interpretive paradigms on which we can draw, and the less obviously mediated character of in-person exchanges means that the interpretive work likely remains pre-conscious. However, when the person becomes an avatar communicating through text, image, meme, film, GIF, etc., then the interpretative burden intensifies. 

And, of course, while most of us know that narratives require interpretation, they also supply interpretations in such a way that it is possible to naively assume that a narrative is simply relaying a transparent account of things. So, when our primary experience is of the Database, then we find ourselves in the position of supplying the interpretative labor a trusted narrative would’ve provided for us. 

(3) I’ve already been hinting at a critical difference: self-consciousness. As is often the case, the conditions of digital media make explicit and conscious what had been previously implicit and unnoticed. And this development can have profound consequences, which can be difficult to describe. 

Perhaps an example will help. Consider the case of someone who deploys a certain style of naive literalism to a religious text, which assumes that reading the Bible, for example, does not involve any “human interpretation.” When they read the text and tell you what it means, they don’t see themselves as interpreters but merely reporters of what the text obviously says. I’ve called this a naive approach not because it is gullible, although that may also be true, but because it is unaware of itself. It has not been troubled by indeterminacy or doubt. It is aware of only one right reading, which it takes for granted. For such a person to become aware of themselves as interpreters is to induce a crisis of faith. They come to see their own reading as just that and as one among many.

So, yes, humans have always been interpreters of experience, but the nature and scope of the interpretive work has changed, and, most importantly, we’ve become aware of it.

We might say, then, that the conditions of pervasive digitization have rendered the full range of human experience a text to be interpreted. Condemned to preform ever more baroque hermeneutical maneuvers we are deprived the satisfactions of a naive experience of reality. Perhaps this accounts for the widely-reported sense of unreality that plagues so many of us.

Meanwhile, public discourse increasingly takes on the quality of interminable debates carried on by individuals with fundamentally different hermeneutical styles and, consequently, interpretations of reality.

And, of course, there is no magisterium to settle matters for us. Indeed, those institutions that functioned analogously to the magisterium but for matters of public interest—the press, the expert class, etc.—have been rendered just another set of interpreters. They may still see themselves as the orthodox sect, of course. But that is no guarantee their interpretive authority will be recognized by others.

Berger noted that multiple responses were possible in the face of the heretical imperative, and the same is true for hermeneutical imperative. Suffice it to say for now that the best hermeneutics require virtues of the head and the heart.