Chapter 26. Interpretation is interpretation is interpretation

Interpretation must not come to an end. Such a sentence seems to be the shibboleth of all humanities written in capital letters above the entrance of any academic institution. It resembles a machine, a perpetuum mobile which is continuously working fueled by thoughts of young and old intellectuals. 

Hermeneutics must not come to an end, because otherwise one would have found the true meaning of something, which is impossible, because such a success would leave every scientist working on literature, culture, art or everything else which is not obvious quite jobless. Imagine there is only a few true interpretations out there and what if they would have been found already? 

Luckily, as Michel Foucault once pointed out, the 19th century invented the endless interpretation which will never stop and never come to an end. In his talk “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx” Foucault addresses the invention of total interpretation. He calls it a “interpretation system” which is constituted as a new approach towards a hermeneutics through texts like “Das Kapital”, “Die Geburt der Tragödie” or “Die Traumdeutung”. 

What do those texts change? They change not only how one interprets but also what. Instead of interpreting things like books, plants, animals, stars, or what ever one may find in the world, everything now circles around the “I”, the subject. It is ourselves we tend to interpret. 

And Foucault explains why: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud did not introduce more signs or things to interpret, they changed what a sign is, they changed signification processes. Foucault compares the interpretation system constituted in the 19thcentury with the one from the 16th century to make the systemic changes visible. And more or less one can add Foucault to those three authors. Why? Because he tried to change the interpretation system as well: the discourse analysis does not go into the depth but choses to stay on the flat surface searching for all the effects which constitute the surface as such. Hermeneutics instead wants to go deeper and deeper, penetrating every meaning. Jacques Derrida wrote about the violence containing the act of hermeneutical interpretation. Foucault’s discourse analysis does not want to be violent. But he calls his work also an archaeology. Is archaeology not the science of digging into the ground, going deep? Yes and no: one has to dig, but only to show surfaces, layers. Imagine an onion. One can peel layer after layer without finding a core or a seed. 

The onion refuses interpretation in the hermeneutical sense. 

Can dark hermeneutics learn from that? Does it provide a different approach? 

I myself believed in the infinite process of interpretation. I taught in every seminar which I was allowed to give, that confronting ourselves with such old texts is important. We can and have to actualize those text through interpretation, making them our own and use them to know better what to do und who we are. But what if this is all a construction, a systemic effect of the 19the century and hence I would teach in the style of German civil servants which almost all intellectuals working at a university were. Am I reactionary, conservative? 

I guess and this bothers me. Should I now tell everyone to forget about all those texts? Or even say that we already reached a certain point in our history of interpretation where we almost know everything about artefacts and texts. Should I say that we decoded and deconstructed, contextualized and historized enough? Why then opting for a new hermeneutics, even a dark hermeneutics? 

I think, that it is important to stay vigilant: this means to criticize the past and hence criticizing our operating system called “interpretation”. Therefore, I would like to provide some ideas to keep in mind, something like a manual for dark hermeneutics: 

  1.  Every sign has a meaning which is also withdrawn from the sign. We cannot reach it no matter how deep we go. 
  2. Every sign does not have a meaning. This does not mean that the world of signs, words especially is meaningless, I am not a nihilist. But texts are written to say something but not always to us. Words can be dumb, or silent too.
  3. Try to leave your interpretation system. Walter Benjamin referred to the “General Strike”. Maybe this is an option to overcome the interpretation system of the 19th century, not only because it is constituted in parts by Marx, but also by capitalism.
  4. When interpretation is spatial as Foucault writes, we might be able to rearrange what is in those areas and rooms we life in. 
  5. For spatial interpretation light might be important. Dark hermeneutics tries to remain in the dark, bumping into different things and meanings, which would be overlook in the light. 

Cut the wires of the interpretation cycle and its system. We need to leave the 19th century.    

Cite this blog post
Martin Bartelmus (2022, August 28). Chapter 26. Interpretation is interpretation is interpretation. Dark Hermeneutics. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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