Narcissistic Interpretation (Theory Moves)

Narcissistic Interpretation: [nahr-suh-sis-tik in-tur-pri-tey-shuhn] Noun Phrase

A tendency to systematically misread the work of others in a way that confirms one’s world view or satisfies one’s psychological, political or professional needs.

Antonym: charity in interpretation

See also: déformation professionelle; taking words out of context;

In philosophy, the principle of “charity in interpretation” admonishes the critic or the interpreter to try to make sense of the statements or texts of others in ways that render these statements or texts appealing.  To practice charity in interpretation, one looks first to see how some statement or text might be compelling and meaningful.  Often, this will entail trying to put on hold one’s own frames, goals, values to appreciate those of  others.   The idea is to avoid missing something that might be important or rewarding and to refrain from dealing with “straw men arguments.”

Enter now, at the very opposite end of the spectrum: narcissistic interpretation.  This is the sort of interpretation in which the interpreter brackets (puts aside) all aspects of another’s text to fasten on those that will gratify his or her own psychological, political, or professional needs.   Three principles are particularly important here.

1.  Selectivity and Hierarchy:   The narcissist interpreter imposes his or her own selection of the important parts of the text (often relegating the other parts to oblivion) and imposes his or her own hierarchy on the parts without regard to the author’s view as to which of them matter most and how much

2.  Rewriting:  The narcissist interpreter unconsciously rewrites the author’s text so that it now appears through the interpreter’s own frames, values, goals, etc.

3.  Reframing:  Having selectively rewritten the text and imposed his or her own hierarchy of values, goals, etc. the narcissist interpreter, then proceeds to draw out the implications (which either validate or invalidate his or her own world view).  In the former case, he or she endorses and even celebrates the text in question.  In the latter case the text is found to be dumb, ignorant, dishonest or even evil.

Signs that one is dealing with an interpretive narcissist:

1.  Repeated Complaints:  An interpretive narcissist will generally receive more than his or her share of complaints from others that their words have been “taken out of context” or that the interpretive narcissist has missed the point or has imposed a tendentious interpretation.

2.  Genre errors:  Given his or her selective reading, the interpretive narcissist often makes genre errors, mistaking narrative for explanation, humor for polemic, scholarship for manifesto (and so on).   Genre errors are easy to make for the interpretive narcissist precisely because he or she does not “read” the whole text.

3.  Unusual emphasis:  Again given the selectivity of his or her reading, the interpretive narcissist may read texts in ways that seem to accord an odd, unusual or strained emphasis to other readers.

4.  Authority:  The interpretive narcissist generally speaks with a tone of great authority and often insists on a strict demarcation between authorized speakers (those of which he or she approves) and unauthorized speakers (those which he or she does not approve).

Discussion and Caveats

Note that narcissistic interpretation can happen quite independently of any settled tendency or condition.   Narcissistic interpretation is something that happens (with varying degrees of frequency and intensity) to everyone.   Note also that narcissistic interpretation is a concept that can be applied to disciplines, sub-disciplines, professions, groups (and so on).   For instance, if we can say that anthropoloy is the discipline least given over to narcissistic interpretation then  [......] is the paradigmatic discipline at the other end of the spectrum.

The concept here applies in many contexts.   For example, propagandists like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly frequently engage in narcissistic interpretation–selecting from the texts of political opponents precisely those parts that, taken out of context, will seem false or even outrageous to a right-wing audience.  (The left is no more immune from this sort of thing than the right, though it doesn’t have the airwaves at this point.)  In academia, narcissistic interpretation often occurs in interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary work as one discipline is apprehended within and deformed by the professional forms, concerns and anxieties of another.  In the legal profession, many trials might be seen as a protracted contest in narcissistic interpretation–each side trying to re-integrate the narrative of the other within its own.

The concept can  clearly be abused.  Consider that a certain amount of  interpretive narcissism is necessary and desirable if we are going to draw out new and different implications from the texts and statements of others.  Consider that some of the tendencies described above are not simply linked to narcissism, but to creativity as well.  Realize too that a certain amount of interpretive narcissism is unavoidable: If you are not, in some irreducible sense, going to interpret texts from within your frame, values, goals—just whose will you be using?   (The rejoinder to this point is that one would presumably want to develop as one’s own frames, values, and goals those that are appropriately open to the texts of others.   Question-begging intended.)

This entry was posted in Nature/Culture, Random Jurisprudence, Theory Moves and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Narcissistic Interpretation (Theory Moves)

  1. Zach says:

    Is the study of law the “paradigmatic discipline at the other end of the spectrum” from anthropology?

  2. Thanks for posting Pierre! I think I have both engaged in this and experienced it from others at times – but could never quite put my finger on what it was! This helps a lot.


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