Is truth a matter of interpretation?
A discussion about ambivalence with Harvard’s controversial intellectual Homi Bhabha.
Pulse: Is there a way to understand truth without thinking of it as part of a story?
Homi Bhabha: I think it’s very difficult to understand the question of truth without some form of narrative because even if you assume that truth is an innate quality of something, in the same spirit that Keats said ‘Truth is beauty, beauty truth’, then truth is still going to be a form of judgment,and judgment assumes some kind of temporality in which you balance various things, and you need language to communicate that.
In what way is truth always a form of judgment?
In that truth is always a claim. You make a claim when you call something true; you are addressing something. So there is always some medium for our perception, which is a kind of judgment, which is a kind of story we tell? Well, truth always has to be mediated in some way, and narrative is a convenient way of doing that. It takes time for a person to get at the essence of something, to grasp the tree-ness of the tree or the trueness of the tree’s tree-ness, and the time it takes to do that would itself be some form of narrative.
Lately people seem more concerned with truth; at the same time, truth seems more difficult to find. For years we’ve been focused on the claims made about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet even now it’s hard to determine who knew what and when. Is truth contingent on whether or not the person speaking believes what he or she is saying?
First let’s go back to narrative: Did people say there were weapons of mass destruction? Yes, they did. Did they find weapons of mass destruction? No, they didn’t. So based on that, you might want to say that people were, as one famous Englishman put it, ‘economical with the truth’, i.e. they didn’t tell the truth. On the other hand, people say that in the moments leading up to the war the intelligence was not good and the evidence was enough to persuade the Blair and Bush governments to believe in it.
So they could have believed it was true?
They could have persuaded themselves of the need for war in just the same way people can persuade themselves that another person is in love with them. They could have believed in it because their desire for it was so strong. But either way, alongside the question of whether people were honest or dishonest about those things, narrative becomes very important. And whether they believed it or not, genuinely, is an issue that is left even more open because of what actually happened.
That’s what I was trying to raise by using the word ‘inertia’ I think. It’s like we relinquish truth to some movement for which we don’t want to take responsibility, and yet we’re still there moving right along with it.
But I think it’s more than just inertia. It’s a particular way of thinking, a particular style of American foreign policy that has had a long history, hundreds of years old, which is the history of pre-emptive action. It’s the idea that you must somehow take control of things before they happen, but when you take action before something has happened,you don’t know if you are hitting the right target.
But depending on whether you destroy that target, the truth might go in various ways
It’s like Michel Foucault’s idea that there is no Truth with a capital T, no transcendent quality. There is always a battle around what is the true, and it’s the function of discourse to stabilize something as true for a certain period of time, whether it’s a particular laboratory method, whether it’s a particular form of medical diagnosis, whether it’s a particular law relating to behavior or a particular norm. Truth is always a negotiation, and it always has a certain authority.
Well in other areas of society, not only politics, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a negotiation. When someone claims to be writing a memoir for instance, we read it in a different way. The meaning becomes questionable if we learn that something the writer presented to us was actually false. This usually leads to controversy, as has happened with writers such as J.T. Leroy, who claimed to be a homosexual, boy prostitute but turned out to be a 40-year-old woman instead. What is it about writing that changes people’s reaction depending on whether the author claims his or her story is true?
That’s a problem concerning different conventions of reading. Conventions of reading are always based on certain structures or conditions of credibility. If you’re looking at a science fiction piece, you expect one thing. If you were reading an allegory where animals stand for human beings, then you’d expect another. And if you’re reading a memoir that’s been presented to you as something true, then likewise you’re relating to a particular convention from the very beginning. Each piece is a different convention. And each convention has a different kind of identification, a different set of codifications.
But doesn’t it come down to interpretation? Does the writer really control it all?
Well no, one can’t control it all, but there is a difference. There is a difference between the levels of interpretation that you establish. When you are writing something that you claim actually happened to you, it’s perfectly possible to describe events truthfully, and it’s also perfectly possible that at some point later your perception of those events might change. This type of change is completely different than saying that you were raped, or that you were a drug addict, when in fact those things never really happened to you. For example, I just read a book by Elie Wiesel about his devastating experiences as a young man during the Holocaust. I hope I’m remembering the story correctly — it would be ironic in the context if I weren’t — but I think that in an early book of his which was published in French, he said that during the Nazi transport of the Jewish people to the concentration camps, there was a lot of sex going on in the wagons.
Then, in the version that I was reading, he says that he’s not so sure that what he’d written about the sex then was really true after all, that perhaps it was only his projection that perhaps he was at a point in his life where he needed some deep, physical comfort and so he may have actually invented it all. Such a situation belongs to what I meant by reinterpretation. You see he WAS in the wagon, and in that wagon bodies were probably very close to one another, lurching around; there were probably all kinds of sounds in that darkness and desperation and loneliness that might have stimulated different interpretations, one of which might have been that the people were indeed having sex. But that kind of interpretation is very different from questioning whether or not Eli Wiesel was actually in those trains and in that situation.
Do you think we create morality by what we write?
Sure. Sure we do. But how else would you create it? I mean, when you talk about writing I assume you mean écriture – you mean inscription — which includes speech, which includes visual signs; it’s not simply what you put down on a piece of paper.
Yes. All of that. Writing a book, writing a film, drawing, creating.
Exactly. Visual signs, visual culture. It’s about a system of meaning. It could be advertising. It could be the Advent calendar. It’s all of this. And how else would morality be articulated?
Articulated or generated? Because I’m talking about generation.
Well, articulated in the sense of made known, made visible, entering into the lives and thinking and speech of people, but also articulated in the sense of an articulated lorry, where what is moral has to be linked, like an articulated vehicle, to a number of other things or vehicles. Language and meaning are the ways one does that.
So being creative can be thought of as being truthful?
Well that’s a very broad thing to state but yes, of course, being creative to some extent is about being truthful to something, truthful to your fantasy, truthful to your desire, truthful to your love of language…
But there are other things to consider too, like the play of power and the desire to please.
Well, what do you mean?
If one wants to create something, he or she then has a basic impetus, but that original ‘truth’ will have to come into contact with everything external as well. There’s always the option that one might become false as a way of fitting in with what is already explicit, isn’t there?
Well, of course you’d be conscious in such a way when you were making something. You’d decide the audience you wanted to approach; you’d decide the theme; you’d decide the form; you’d decide the funding; and you’d decide the institution where you would locate the work and so on. What you would not be able to define is the way in which that work over time, or even in its own time, was interpreted or institutionalized. In different places and in different situations there are things which function as truths, but in each of these situations there is always a place from which those ideas or concepts or norms can be questioned.
There’s seems to be an ambivalence here though, in terms of the tension between what one might feel as his or her truth and how that feeling might change as they interact with the world.
Those two things are certainly at play, but there’s also something else at play and that is that as soon as you write a sentence, as soon as you invest a part of yourself in a work, you cannot be fully aware of how you are transcribing your own psychic state into it. The work is always open to interpretation, even against the grain of the author’s intentions.
In that sense, what do you think of the way your own work has been interpreted? Many of your peers, as you know, often criticize you for writing obscurely. I suppose obscurity can also mean ambiguity, and deliberate ambiguity might be a way of leaving something open to as many interpretations as possible. Do you think your writing is obscure? Do you do that on purpose?
Well I can see how certain things that I write could be difficult. When I’m working on something, there might be a time when I haven’t quite worked out the thought but I know that this gray area is crucial to the argument. In those times, I will still try my best to keep this thought in the text, even if it creates a kind of uncertainty in some way.
So it becomes more poetry than prose, leaving this space open for interpretation.
So it becomes more poetry than prose, leaving this space open for interpretation. Right. I don’t close off the space and say I’m going to stop there just because I’m on stable ground. When I’m writing it’s very often a high-wire act; it isn’t certain.
There are people who would say that the only way to find new answers is to be able to deal with uncertainty but…
Well. Well, I’m sure that’s true.
Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2007