Tangled Webs: Modernity and Interpretive Complexity

Matthew Norton, University of Oregon

An under-appreciated dimension of transitions to modernity is the changing character of interpretation. While Geertz' "webs of significance"– culture itself – are a constant in the analysis of human social life, a mainstay of cultural theory is that their content is vastly varied. Less noted is that the form, composition, texture, expression, and modes of transmission of how human communities interpret and perform the meanings of those interpretations can vary, and often in systematic ways. The transition to modernity involved just such a systematic transformation of interpretive infrastructures: they have tended to become more complicated. The paper first considers and rejects the idea that the transition to modernity involves a change in the overall degree of interpretive complexity – that is to say, the idea that interpretation itself has become more complex. Though attractive in some respects, this idea contradicts what we know about the complexity and character of non- and pre-modern human culture. Rather, the basic interpretive transformation associated with modernity involves the replacement of more intuitive, familiar, ingrained, experiential, native, and autochthonous modes of interpretation with interpretive infrastructures that are more external and institutionalized. These new infrastructures of interpretation promise, through overt, explicit, often bureaucratic modes of interpretive action, to routinize and stabilize interpretive power. But because interpretation remains so nuanced and contextual this transition to institutionalized interpretive infrastructures insistently tends toward greater institutional and overt semiotic complexity. The paper uses this analysis to account for the general-but-lumpy trend of modern interpretive infrastructures toward finer distinctions and greater complexity – an under-theorized characteristic of the transition to modernity – using the development and transformation of common law legal precepts and the adoption of instant replay in sports as case studies.

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 Presented in Session 121. Power and Normativity, Part 1: Meaning, Modernity, Revolution