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On Interpretive Conflict

“Interpretation” is a term that encompasses both the most esoteric and the most fundamental activities of our lives, from analyzing medical images to the million ways we perceive other people’s actions. Today, we also leave interpretation to the likes of web cookies, social media algorithms, and automated markets. But as John Frow shows in this thoughtfully argued book, there is much yet to do in clarifying how we understand the social organization of interpretation.
On Interpretive Conflict delves into four case studies where sharply different sets of values come into play—gun control, anti-Semitism, the religious force of images, and climate change. In each case, Frow lays out the way these controversies unfold within interpretive regimes that establish what counts as an interpretable object and the protocols of evidence and proof that should govern it. Whether applied to a Shakespeare play or a Supreme Court case, interpretation, he argues, is at once rule-governed and inherently conflictual. Ambitious and provocative, On Interpretive Conflict will attract readers from across the humanities and beyond.

216 pages | 2 line drawings | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2019

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“This is peak Frow. The book’s at once capacious and rigorous framework for thinking about the conflicted protocols, values, and institutions of interpretation—and its stunningly informed readings of past but especially recent legal, literary, artistic, and scientific cases—are urgently absorbing. When, on the last page of the last chapter, Frow breaks out of persona to speak passionately in personal voice about the interpretation of climate science, the reader knows he has earned that right.”

Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Through a brilliant and wide-ranging prolegomenon followed by original case studies drawn from law, literature, art, and climate science, Frow powerfully unfolds the role that interpretive conflict plays in the knowledge worlds that shape our present realities. According to Frow, the regimes of reading advanced by particular interpretations direct discussion but do not determine it, making room for invention and creativity in the construction of new arguments and readings. On Interpretive Conflict will initiate its own interpretive conflicts, demonstrating decisively why thoughtful argument matters today.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton, University of California, Irvine

“Changing the world requires interpreting the world and interpreting it well. Frow defends interpretation against its postcritical critics, administering them a gentle but devastating smackdown with his well-known authority and flair, taking his examples from climate change and Kafka, bridge building and Shakespeare, and Australian aboriginal art. In his hands we see contextualization not as a dull obligation but as an opportunity for brilliance.”

Bruce Robbins, Columbia University

“Frow has long been one of the Most Valuable Theorists in the enterprise known as cultural studies. In a wonderfully eclectic analysis that ranges from the U.S. Constitution to The Merchant of Venice, from climate change to the history of iconoclasm to the work of Aboriginal artist Dorothy Napangardi, Frow shows us how the conflict of interpretations weaves the social fabric, setting the terms for how we apprehend one another—and the nonhuman world as well.”

Michael Bérubé, Pennsylvania State University

"Timely and relevant for a wide audience, this volume provides interesting expository descriptions of four major interpretive conflict contexts. . . . Frow employs a textual Marxist-relativist–inspired structural approach, illuminating institutional 'regimes of interpretation', i.e., regimes that establish protocols, create interpretive conflicts issuing from temporal, political, and contextual changes, all animating the landscape of functionally interpreted meanings. . . . Recommended."


". . . On Interpretive Conflict is admirably direct. Except for specialists in the topic, the question of “intention” in interpretation has become worryingly inexplicit in contemporary literary criticism . . . Interpretive Conflict is a welcome corrective to this tendency.

Len Gutkin | Genre

". . . a tour-de-force that will be of immense interest to legal scholars. . . this book can be read both as a primer on how to study practices of interpretation, and as a showcase of the complex entanglement of law with culture, history, science and politics. . . Frow is a remarkably proficient author, and there are many aspects of his work that connect to law. . .with this new book, and its explicit connections to law and legal method, one can only hope that legal scholars will pay more attention to his oeuvre."

Maksymilian Del Mar | The Modern Law Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Institutions of Interpretation
1 Reading with Guns: District of Columbia v. Heller
2 Contract, Custom, and the Multiple Historicities of The Merchant of Venice
3 Icon, Iconoclasm, Presence
4 Construing Climate Change
Coda: Interpretation and Judgment


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