Complexity as Accuracy

Jon was talking to me about what he wanted to teach his students in the coming year, and he remembered that, years ago, I had argued that complex readings are preferable to simple ones.1 He asked me why that was; he couldn’t recall the argument, only the claim.

I believe he was referring to the series I wrote about literary criticism, or perhaps just literary interpretation, where I tried to lay out what I took to be the lowest common denominators of most people working in literature departments (link). That series does, by way of its central argument, explain why I prefer a complex reading to a simple one; however, that central argument is spread out over several posts, and my series does not answer this question easily or directly, so for simplicity’s sake I will make the case here.


One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” a poem often read as containing lesbian subtext.

The original series argued why we must, if we wish to be logical and accurate, agree that texts have meanings of their own, distinct from authorial intent or the reader’s response. I won’t repeat that here; I’ll take it as axiomatic. You can review that yourself if you care to. However, the meanings that texts have are not singular (or “unitary,” as the New Critics would have said): all language contains a level of ambiguity for a few reasons.

First, even if we pin the meaning of a word to the time period in which it was written, most words are polyvalent: they have a variety of possible meanings, perhaps slight and perhaps significant. A sentence, paragraph, or whole text might provide the context to narrow that ambiguity down, but it might also introduce new options through irony, symbol, or idiosyncratic use.

Second, what Jacques Derrida calls differance has a real effect. I’m not going to explain deconstruction here, except to note that what most people mean by the word is not at all what Derrida had in mind and is not how most of those scholars who know what they are talking about use the term. You can almost certainly find a readable primer elsewhere. The consequences of differance are what matter here: most texts, the vast majority of texts, are self-contradictory in some way. For instance they might posit or imply a firm distinction between male and female which renders them exhaustive and exclusive, but in the course of the text they will probably leave open space for that which is neither male nor female, or depict something which has traits of both. This is not always going to be obvious; it will require careful analysis to determine how a text creates its dichotomies and then undermines them. These distinctions might not always be about gender, of course, but there will be dichotomies, and these will often be undermined.

That gives us two ways in which a text will have multiple possible meanings. On the level of a sentence, it might be possible to enumerate all possible meanings; on the level of a poem, short story, or novel, it is not possible to exhaust them all with certainty. We can imagine this as a field of possible meaning: not every meaning is possible, nor are all possible meanings equal, since some require use of more unlikely meanings than others.2 This field of possible meanings is independent of any specific act of meaning-making: the symbols are there in the text, referring to the history those symbols have independent of any one reader.

So suppose you want to understand what a text means in relation to the histories of its symbols, and not what its author wanted to communicate or what some particular set of people understand it to communicate. If this is your goal, the object of your inquiry is not a single meaning; it is that field of possible meanings. Therefore, for the sake of mere accuracy, your interpretation should observe the existence of such a field, and make some headway into exploring it. It would be reckless to say that you’d exhausted the field, of course, but to stake out only one interpretation as the interpretation is also disingenuous. Considered this way, most of literary criticism is an argument over what meanings of a text are possible, and which within that space are weaker or stronger. Arguing that a particular meaning is impossible is still a legitimate and valuable thing to do in such an endeavour.

Therefore I do not value complexity for its own sake; it is simply a question of accuracy. The meanings of a text are complex. If you wish to understand them, your interpretation must reflect that. Of course, a lot is riding on that “if.”

1. For most posts prompted by questions Jon has asked me, look at my page of interlocutors (link).
2. If you don’t like the “field” metaphor, taken from physics, you could say instead use a “set” metaphor, taken from mathematics, or a “collection” metaphor, taken from everyday life. I prefer the “field” metaphor because it can suggest a centre to the field, where more probable meanings reside, and the periphery, where less probably meanings reside.

One thought on “Complexity as Accuracy

  1. Pingback: A Case for Intransitive Reading | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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