Scylla and Charybdis

Some of the most enduring kinds of cultural traditions have been interpretive in nature. My research has focused on the interaction of cognition and culture surrounding the Christian Bible, but in this series I am explore a broader general model of interpretive traditions. This is the fifth and final post in the series: interested readers may find the rest of the posts here.

In this post I would like to step back from an examination of the micro-processes of interpretation and consider instead the broad, long-term dynamics of interpretive traditions. I have suggested that interpretive traditions face a fundamental dilemma: in order to maintain a coherent social organization, there must be some limit on permissible interpretations; but too tight a limit on permissible interpretations results in stagnation, boredom, and irrelevance. The historical trajectory of interpretive traditions is thus akin to Odysseus’ path between Scylla and Charybdis, Scylla representing the chaos that results from unconstrained production and consumption of representations and Charybdis representing the collapse of an organization when it has become so fixed that people lose interest. If one wishes to put it in information-theoretic terms: too much freedom of interpretation is the equivalent of a chaotic system, in which knowing one interpretation offers no value for understanding others; too little freedom of interpretation is the equivalent of a system with an extremely low information content.

In broad strokes, this dynamic may be seen in the evolution of Protestantism. The Anabaptists took the principle of sola scriptura—the idea that the Bible alone is authoritative—to its logical conclusion, and their communities underwent near constant schism in part because of the resulting interpretive chaos. Lutherans and Calvinists achieved relatively more stable communities in part by regarding the interpretations of particular individuals as authoritative, and thus constraining the interpretive freedom within their communities.

Another, and I think more common, way of striking this balance is to fix the representations that are regarded as formal doctrine or the text that is regarded as scripture, but to maintain flexibility in the ways in which the relevance of those doctrines or that scripture is established. Thus, in the church I studied ethnographically, the text of the Bible was mainly regarded as a fixed entity, but the application of the scriptural text was a site of constant innovation.

Institutions need both fixed representations and novel representations to remain organized and retain people’s attention. Interpretive traditions, where the interpretand is fixed, face a special challenge in this regard. That they are able to resolve it successfully, most of the time, is a testament to the immense skill of our species as information managers.




1 Comment

  • Karen Lofstrom 16 August 2009 (06:51)

    It’s been a while since I read any histories of early Christianity, but I recall several authors discussing a ratchet effect. Controversy, church members take sides, and one side wins. The church’s position on X has just become more explicit, more constrained. Attention then shifts to a new controversy. Over time, beliefs, and rules, become ever stricter. You seem to be discussing the same effect, but saying that the ratchet effect can stop; that there’s an equilibrium point at which there’s just the right amount of interpretive play. I’m not so sure that the ratchet effect is easily stopped. It seems much more common for an organization to fracture rather than manage to paddle in place. Could this be applicable to the history of Judaism and the evolution of Judaic law? I’m not an expert, but I have the impression that over the millenia, rules have become ever stricter and more detailed. When some Jews felt that this made it impossible to adapt to modern life, they left Orthodoxy to form Conservative or Reform synagogues. Evolution of rules in various Hindu traditions might also be something to investigate. I have the impression that there has been a ratcheting of dietary rules, as Brahmins became ever more vigilant about purity. Vide the comparatively recent objections to onion and garlic, which are supposed to rouse the animal passions.