The straw men come out to play … with reception history

After slipping by without notice, my little piece ‘Against Reception History‘ over at Bible and Interpretation has put the wind up both Christopher Heard and John Hobbins. Heard, webmaster for the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (and hailing from that toothpaste-sounding university, Pepperdine) has penned a longish piece on the actual Blackwell site called ‘In Defense of Reception History’. Hobbins, meanwhile, reckons Heard has ‘corrected’ my little misunderstandings – here at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

The criticism boils down to saying that I created the proverbial straw man – reception history – whom I then cut down. But reading the posts by these worthy gentlemen, it seems that the straw men have come out to play. Except that the straw men disagree with one another.

After trying a weak encirclement movement – ‘but you too are doing reception history, my dear Roland, but you simply don’t realise it’ – Heard’s singular criticism is that I misrepresent what all those worthy reception critics are doing. How so? Do they give priority to determining the meaning of the text in its original setting (whatever the fuck that might be)? No, no, no, says Heard: they simply allow every interpretation equal validity. In fact, to quote that lovable fossil, John Sawyer, the text doesn’t really ‘exist’ without a reader.

What is also new is the notion that the reception of a text is more important than the text itself, and even that a text doesn’t really exist until somebody reads it.

Um, Chris, my dear smiling man: that used to be called reader-response criticism. But does that mean we are all caught in that dreadful mush sometimes called ‘post-modern’ (so Hobbins)? No, no, no, says Heard:

To be sure, reception history treats biblical texts as ‘originary’ with respect to later uses thereof, but only in the undeniable and rather uninteresting sense that a biblical book must exist before it can have any effects or influence precisely as a book, just as you can’t use a dictionary or be affected by a sentimental love song until those textual objects exist.

Now Heard simply refuses to see the philosophical issues at stake in the very use of the terms Rezeptionsgeschichte and Wirkungsgeschichte, issues that were at the core of Gadamer’s method and the very meanings of those terms. While Heard bends over backwards, forewards and sideways to show that reception history is really just as postmodern as the rest of us, that those dreadful German biblical critics no longer call the shots, Hobbins is less than impressed with Heard’s gymnastics.

For Hobbins, reception does indeed refer to everything that comes after that beautiful, glistening original moment of the text itself. And you should indeed aim to find out what a text meant in its original context:

I defend the right of an ancient text to have a meaning specific to its time and place, a meaning that deserves to be understood as primary even if we can only seek to recover it, as opposed to know it for certain down to the last detail.

I might defend the right of animals to become clergy, or perhaps for amoeba to vote, but that doesn’t mean it is realistic. Come on, John, do you really believe that crap? Citing the old Renaissance slogan, ad fontes, betrays your hand: the very possibility of imagining an originary text in its time and place, and the desire to understand it as such, is itself enabled by the conditions that assumption denies in its universalist pitch. In other words, the very method Hobbins espouses is itself anachronistic and alien to the text’s ‘original’ situation. So we are back with that old, worn and highly suspect search for pristine origins – the bane of biblical scholars, theologians … and Renaissance men. It is a nice interpretive fiction, but dangerous if you believe it.

All of which leaves me with one last question for Heard-Hobbins (sounds like Bilbo Baggins), wtf is reception history?