PRINT May 1991


AMONG SÖREN KIERKEGAARD'S divers prescriptive parables there is one, “The Critical Apparatus,” that might profit our attention on this reflective occasion, or, at the least, allow us an opportunity for critical play.

Kierkegaard directs his readers to imagine a country in which a “royal command” has been issued “to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population.” What follows is something of a remarkable transformation in which the royal subjects respond by becoming interpreters of the decree-as-text. “The office-bearers become authors,” and proceed to produce a learned and prodigious literature “more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming,” but most of all more voluminous than the critical literature itself is able to survey. “Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it.”1

To secure his parable against any false reading, Kierkegaard devotes more than half the text to a rendering of its spiritual, moral content. He wants it clear: the royal party who set forth the commandment is no mortal king (who would try “to put the best face on a bad game”); rather, He is an almighty king, a Supreme Being who would show forgiveness if only His subjects had not willfully distorted the terms of “seriousness” by substituting for Faith and Accountability the “bad game” of critical, interpretive practice.

If we slide this homiletic tale along a time line from the 1850s to the 1960s, shift the ground of its argument to late Modernism, and strip away its parabolic form, we might imagine ourselves reading Susan Sontag’s passionate, monitory essay of 1964, “Against Interpretation.” As a Modernist, Sontag found Faith in Form, i.e., significant form; and Accountability came through the authority of the art object as the holy body of significant form. The sin of faithless critics was their substitution of the allurements of hermeneutics for the commandments of esthetics. Now, in the waning moments of the 20th century, all that seems long ago (and so metaphysically sublime).

Sontag does say something interesting here, however, that previously eluded our attention: “In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.”2 The early 1960s, according to Sontag, were the latter sort of context. The signs were in the air: “Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere,”3 a hypertrophic intellect was exercising vengeance on human sensibilities. In other words, an uncontrolled and overdeveloped will to interpretation was running amok in an already impoverished world, just as it had among Kierkegaard’s imaginary citizenry. Sontag felt vehemently that interpretation could only impoverish the world further.

By what signs might we recognize the proper time or shift in cultural context that would require interpretation as a liberating or revolutionary act? When might critical thought rightly challenge faith? When might proliferating interpretation be an appropriate reaction to “royal command”? Inspired as much by public as by artistic events, some critical activists were convinced they had met the moment in May 1968, some in May 1970, others during Watergate. All believed they recognized a counterman-date not only to reassert content but to acknowledge context, to unbracket and problematize meaning, even to heat up interpretation with the fire of interrogation. Remember the urgent, productive babble of renegade criticism on the offensive, liberating art from the clutches of Art? The hour to assess critically the exclusionary nature of sign(ificant) form had arrived. In Allan Sekula’s phrase, it was the time for “Dismantling Modernism.”

That also seems long ago (and so egalitarian and resolute). In fact we can barely catch sight of the recent past between the precarious, towering stacks of publications that occupy our view of it. Concerning the present, matters have seriously escalated. The agents of “impoverishment” are now global (greenhouse effect) and lethal (AIDS); meanwhile, the human mind earnestly perfects its own prosthesis (artificial intelligence). A chronic question: does this indicate we have returned to a Sontagian condition where the heterogeneous voices of interpretation (and deconstruction) can only further damage a severely threatened world? Is there need once again to purge and purify art of what might be described as a negative symbiosis or dependency? A tonic answer: in the passage between then and now, an irreversible metamorphosis has occurred to the body of interpretation. No, it did not awake one morning to find itself transformed into a giant insect. Neither cockroach nor butterfly, the mutation has been both more surprising and more expected—and infinitely more risk filled.

Imagine a world. A new order is set down that affects the entire population. A remarkable change comes over this world we are imagining: oranges are no longer oranges, although they continue to look exactly like oranges.4 What’s more, this same phenomenon applies to everything else in the world. Yet no one seems to take particular notice. If anything, the population behaves as though their world were more intensely itself than ever before, like a television screen that had become sharper, more vivid (in ever expanding hues), the sound brighter, the tempo subtly quickened—in short, all things appear ENHANCED in every aspect. And yet, as we’ve already said, this phenomenon is largely unacknowledged, except by a handful of self-styled interpreters, entrepreneurial critics, and storytellers.

The stories related by these women and men of letters differ wildly. They tell, for example, of an antiworld that has insinuated itself into the lives of the population. Deftly it consumes the “real” world, they say, and replicates itself in an upward spiral of system domination. The expression “hyperreal” begins to circulate among the discrete groups who exchange these tales. A more sanguine outlook is proposed by a community of instrumentalist thinkers who speculate that the effects being observed are only the epiphenomena of a technology that points toward a more marvelous, more wonderful, more marvelously wonderful future—an ever newer order in which the conception of “body” will achieve an unprecedented hybrid form, and a time in which the real will be virtually customized to the demands and desires of the individual body-client. Distressed by this delirium of diagnosis and prognosis, other voices rise in alarmed reaction. They speak anxiously of conspiracy, of decadence, of the world having lost its bearings on a trajectory to hell, and of the need to navigate back to an essentialist vision before all is lost.

Complex theories soon evolve to support the various interpretive accounts that have begun to spread in widening circles. An acceleration of debates ensues. The hyperreal—by now having achieved considerable stature in certain quarters—is attacked as mere allegory; an elaborate alibi for the real. The contending view holds that the covert mechanisms of the New Order must be understood thoroughly: there are no other meanings, none exist outside the code that governs the New Order. It is determined, after careful analysis, that this order’s underlying principle and driving force derive from a binary scansion. Curious philosophical historians and epistemologists unearth the radical root of the Tree of Knowledge (which started growing and blossoming long before our parable began) and discover it too is grounded in pairs of oppositional signs. Suspicions arise that the New Order is no more than a digital reconstruction of the Old Order. This word “digital” rings oddly in people’s ears, as do many of the other terms and phrases that have escaped from the scattered groups of intellectuals and technocrats. In certain sectors of the population the thought of their most personal reality being reduced to numeric sets begins to effect a wave of melancholy.

Slowly a picture emerges, a schematic representation of the New Order that depicts an integrated circulatory network—or informational routing and storage system—accented by vectors or gates that operate according to basic functions of logic. Not everyone fully accepts this hyperrational model of total connectivity as either an accurate or a complete map of the world we are imagining. Nevertheless, by the telelexic means of the system network, an ironic fable passes from terminal to terminal,and finds considerable appeal among the populace:

In the kingdom of Good, a strange communication was received by the king himself, delivered by messenger from the kingdom of Evil. Neither scroll nor folio, the message consisted of cryptoglyphic figures fashioned in unknown materials on an irregularly shaped plate like so—

Unable to decipher this enigmatic tablet, the king instructed his counselors to determine its precise significance and to do so within the passage of a day. The counselors were as baffled as the king but set immediately to work using every bit of knowledge at their disposal. By the end of the allotted time they were no less baffled; but having learned from hard experience that an educated guess is better than none, they brought their cleverest hypotheses before the king and presented them with great enthusiasm. “It is a proposal for peace between our two kingdoms,” said one with feigned authority. “No, not at all,” said a second, “what we have here are signs of territorial aggression!” “You misunderstand,” said a third, “it is obviously the outline of a trade agreement.” Alas, there was no consensus among these masters of interpretation, only conjecture. Another suggested, in an enlightened tone, that it was not a message at all but rather a thing of beauty—a fragment of the Sun found buried deep in Earth. Finally, the last counselor admitted his ignorance concerning the nature and identity of the unknown object. With an air of humility, he recommended to the king that it be taken to a wise woman who, according to legend, dwelt among the peasants at the margins of the kingdom.

And so it was done. In time the strange artifact was returned with a cursive note from the wise woman. It read:

Messages beget messages.
The wolf is still in the forest
and the forest is disguised in the wolf.

The king fell into silence for some hours, after which he had his counselors brought before him and executed one by one—including the last and most humble.

This summary act amuses the members of the general population, who never appear to question the king’s action, ask about the fate of the wise woman, or inquire very deeply into the meaning of her riddle. They are seemingly content to route the fable along from one terminal display to the next.

The storytellers, interpreters, and critics are not so amused; they conclude, however, that the popular response is largely an expression of unexamined nostalgia for the figure of absolute authority rather than a cathartic release of latent cynicism or hostility. They also understand that fables don’t tell the whole story (let alone the truth), especially such a refractory fable as this. Facile conclusions, they feel, should be resisted: for example, that the king’s action signaled the disenchantment of interpretation. Besides, the wise woman excites them far more. How, for instance, was she able to draw so much power from her marginality? Was hers a wild and subversive science linked to the wolf as its alchemic agent? Was her riddle the silent underside of the artifactual message the king had originally received, or the puzzling means to its interpretive resolution?

Among these diverse, prolix members of the Critical Apparatus a playful wager arises that the wolf will yet prove to be the match of the New Order.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom live in Houston and collaborate as artists under the name MANUAL. They contribute frequently to Artforum.



1. Sören Kierkegaard, Parables of Kierkegaard, ed. Thomas C. Oden, Princeton: at the University Press, 1978, pp. 12–13.

2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1966, p. 7. Our italics.

3. Ibid.

4. We refer here to the fully digitized orange in Tron, the 1982, Big-Bad-vs.-good-little-guys, SF adventure film that takes place largely within the “intergalactic” space of a mainframe computer.