Interpreting Interpretation: (Meta-)Interpretive Frameworks

A while back, I attempted to analyze the ways that interpretive styles differ among fans, and how we can use that to not only classify ourselves but also understand some of our own behavior and tendencies. Along the way I ended up coming up with a working definition of “interpretation” that I could use for discussion. Ironically, at the same time, as part of a different project, I ended up coming up with a definition of fan(dom) that I thought was pretty workable, and also helped explain some of our behavior. And at the end of the summer, I engaged in a discussion with Misfortunedogged that ended up turning a “defense of harems” into more of a discussion on interpretation and art. In this post, I hope to bring some of these ideas to bear on a discussion of some of the larger frameworks/trends/dichotomies that seem to characterize interpretation as a whole.

How many interpretive frameworks came into play during this one scene from Hyouka, both within the anime and the community at large?

For instance, how many interpretive frameworks came into play during this one scene/arc from Hyouka, both within the anime itself and the community at large?

Note: This is quite a long post, and I ended up finishing it at 4am, so I apologize ahead of time if things don’t seem fully cohesive.

First, I do realize this is quite different from my “promised” post on the why of interpretation, either outlining the motivations behind why we do it and the reasons we interpret the way we do. So why the change? In all honesty, I’m still racking my brains over the former, and I’d thought I dealt with a decent chunk of the latter in my first “Interpreting Interpretation” post. However, in retrospect, all I’d done with with that post was establish a possible connection, and make an argument not to judge other elements of the fandom because what they want to get out of their consumed media might be different from what you want out of your (possibly identical) consumed media. I mean, everyone just wants to enjoy their hobbies, right? (Well, at least assuming Monogatari‘s most recent episodes about the underpinnings and repercussions of a persecution/victim complex doesn’t hold true at large, although see Froggykun’s post about identifying as otaku to see the complex interplay ideas like this have on us).

Luckily, some of my work has been done for me, again via Froggykun. In his post about some of the ways at which we build up interpretation through fanfiction, we get a sense of exactly why we end up interpreting things the way we do in a more concrete (if maybe slightly less well-drawn :p) sense, as well as some of the effects they have on us on the medium itself. Taking this with some of the ideas linked above, we seem to me moving towards a more…coherent?…sense of fandom, our place in it, and our perception(s) of all of the things previously mentioned (including perception itself!).

Here's his final diagram from the post, to illustrate his spheres of interpretation idea.

Here’s his final diagram from the post, to illustrate his spheres of interpretation idea.

In essence, I feel I’m slowly moving towards a more integrated view about interpretation and the ways in which we interact with it, both as contributors and as members. Which, after much digression, brings me to the stuff I’m interested in discussing today. Namely:

What are the main “styles” or “frameworks” of interpretation that most people seem to employ?

If we’re considering Froggykun’s framework, this might be change to something like:

What are the main “styles” or “frameworks” of interpretation that most people seem to employ to construct their respective spheres of interpretation?

Additionally, I think I’ll be indirectly asking whether these are fundamental dichotomies or things that we sort of make up, even if we don’t do so consciously. I’ll also try and use them to explain a couple other concepts, and talk a little bit about (and imply) how they influence the general anisphere (as far as I can tell; interesting discussions on that topic abound – I personally enjoy A_Libellule’s posts on the subject, as well as Froggykun’s thoughts).

First, let’s just throw up some of the stuff I’ve talked about in previous posts so we can make sure we’re on the same page. To start, let’s define “interpretation”:

(1) The process of associating meaning with images.
(2) The process of associating deeper/underlying meaning with images beyond those that are readily apparent.

As had been noted by others on my much rougher first post, if we’re being purely academic, then (1) is a more acceptable definition. However, (2) is a much more practical definition, especially if we’re discussing analysis as seen on the blogosphere or the ways we interact with the shows we watch.

There’s a problem with both definitions thought – neither definition takes into context the process by which the consumer/producer of media interacts with interpretation itself. Or how these interpretations interact with each other. Or at least, not unless we export some other framework onto “the process of associating”. Our liberal use of “images” is fine because that’s meant to be a shoe-in for a lot of possible media, but our liberal use of “associating” in this case actually will mean something much more specific. And because that’s a huge part in actually determining the second part – the “associating meaning with images” part that I used to pick apart the fandom – it’s kind of important to understand what exactly is going on there. Which is why Froggykun’s previously-mentioned analysis is cool – it helps fill in this gap and give that section of my definition more substance (AKA allows us to start importing said alternate framework onto our definition)! So that’s pretty great.

Alternate frameworks are great because they give you a mirror to look at the way things are structured now and the assumptions that put them together.

Alternate frameworks are great because they give you a mirror to look at the way things are structured now and the assumptions that put them together, and hopefully ways to incorporate new understandings into the old ones. Also, I should probably get around to watching Gatchaman Crowds someday.

On that note, let’s also throw up my definitions of fan(dom), since I think they’ll be useful to this discussion:

Someone who (self-)identifies with the enjoyment brought about by an object of entertainment.

An active community of fans surrounding an object of entertainment that engages not only with the object but also itself. Frequently displays consumerist and obsessive tendencies.

Combining these two, I also want to separate the existing fandom into four groups:

The focused fan interprets in the way most relevant to him, picking an interpretation that has the most meaning for him without considering (or quickly discarding) most others.

The discerning fan seems much more like a literary critic – he tries to comb through all possible interpretations and then, based on some metric, declares one superior to the rest and dismisses them.

The omnifan is the discerning fan who just ultimately refuses to pass the final verdict, leaving all interpretations valid and refusing to judge them by some arbitrary standard. 

The apathetic fan simply consumes and don’t attempt to interpret in a deep, meaningful way. These are essentially fans who stick with my (1) definition of interpretation and don’t try and move down to (2) – or at least don’t take (2) too seriously – and I believe (along with focused fans) actually constitute a decent majority of anime viewers who simply watch as a form of entertainment (there’s a lot of variety here though!).

So what exactly do I mean by these “frameworks”? Well, in all cases some way of interpreting things. The focused fan interprets “in the way most relevant to him”. The discerning fan rates interpretations “based on some metric“. The omnifan refuses to judge interpretations on “some arbitrary standard“. The apathetic fan is defined relative to – or maybe even in response to – these groups.

I seem to have left out the rabid fan though...

I seem to have left out the rabid fan though…

I think you can guess where I’m going with this. How exactly are these standards constructed? Or, more precisely – what are they? What common methods are used such that wide varieties of people agree on interpretations? And, under such a framework, can we successfully argue that all fans interpret, without resorting to the more academic definition (1)? By looking into this, hopefully we’ll get a sense of what interpretive frameworks each fandom tends to use, and (indirectly) start getting at the question of what exactly the relationship between fans and interpretation is, as well as why it is/might be there.

Ultimately, I think interpretative frameworks come down to three main questions:

(a) What is the ultimate goal of your interpretation? Is it meant to be “descriptive” or “explicative”?
(b) What is the main reference point for your interpretation? Is it meant to be “objective” or “subjective”?
(c) What is the primary focus of your interpretation? Is it “internal” or “external”?

Now, the first two questions probably seem pretty obvious. I’m guessing the third probably makes no sense. Still, the first might strike you as a “but if it’s not explicative then isn’t that not really interpretation, so that’s a dumb question, right?” type of thing (which is totally true), while the second one most likely strikes you as a very obvious dichotomy. I have nothing to add to the second – it is a very obvious dichotomy. However, the first has a reason behind it. Plus both of them are a little bit nuanced.

First off, interpretation doesn’t necessary involve an explanation, but merely an association. That’s why things like “symbolism” and all that “deep” literary crap (although at this point it’s crap I have now built up so what does that make me?!?!) are commonly counted as “interpretation”. And furthermore, the meanings associated with them have nothing to do with explaining what the heck is actually going on at a given time, either thematically or otherwise. 

For instance, I probably could attempt a nice go at symbolism in the Monogatari series, as well as a couple other more “literary” shows, but to hell with asking me to explain how they all tie together to the story in some deep meaningful way that explains what’s going on (at least, not without a lot more time and effort on my part). Plus, even worse, frequently they’re not even tied to the narrative but some type of meta-narrative, which is being told simultaneously along with the real one!



The best part about these meta-narratives? Besides usually being mostly, if not completely, removed from the actual story itself, half the time they aren’t even fully coherent! Many of them aren’t internally consistent or fully fleshed out, instead being left to (inadvertently or inadvertently) the readers/viewers to argue about while they attempt to “connect the dots”. In other words, you’re left with some “thematic elements”, which you have to then tie into a coherent framework so that they “make sense”. Meta-narratives don’t actually make sense intrinsically as far as I can tell, but rather only make sense in some sort of framework that the reader imposes upon the work. For example, my post on LN adaptations showcases (I think) both types of this kind of thing; however, it could easily (and legitimately!) be accused of doing this “reading way too much into things” deal, as could any of Froggykun’s stuff on OreImo (although those seem quite a bit less “serious” than my post). In fact, even Misfortundogged’s discussion of TTGL at the macro/micro/meta scale can be seen as an extension of this idea. Even if you take the meta-narrative as the idea of narrative structure instead of a thematic one, it still doesn’t make sense, but rather is just descriptive.

An alternate idea is the common application of things like Freudian analysis or Marxist social theory to literary texts. More often than not, you get a bunch of things like “OMG HONEY = BIRDS AND BEES = SEX” and “HOLY SHIT NAIL AND HAMMER = REPRESSED SEXUAL FEELINGS FOR HIS MOTHER” or “AUTUMN = THE WANING OF THE CAPITALIST ESTABLISHMENT WHY DIDN’T I SEE IT BEFORE” and “IT’S SO OBVIOUS RED LEAVES = COMMUNISM”, and other bullshit like that. And then you have absolutely no idea how that explains, or oftentimes even relates, to the original story. Even when stories are clearly meant to be interpreted in such a framework, the relation between the lens of analysis and the repository of meanings associated with certain elements is not always purely explicative. In this case, I overanalyzed some excerpts from Winnie the Pooh, just to illustrate the extent to which I’m sure many college students (and pretty much everyone) can bullshit; or, alternately, to show how it really is a story all about the rise (and fall) of communism and/or the pervasiveness of the Oedipus complex and the power of sexual fantasies. Notice I’m doing exactly what I said we should to be careful of in the last paragraph – constructing a coherent meta-narrative out of incoherent fragments.

Clearly meant to showcase the concept of the "White Man's Burden".

Clearly meant to showcase the concept of the “White Man’s Burden”.

Another big point here is one of the “intent” of the viewer. Now, obviously, whatever internal lens you have applied to the show (because, in all honesty, you can never take them off, no matter how hard you might try) will influence things. So asking whether your interpretation is “descriptive” seems like a question that defeats itself because it’s ultimately impossible. But!

This'll obviously never get old though. ;)


But! Once we take the idea of viewer intent into the picture, this makes much more sense. The viewer can try his best to simply describe the events, offering up no explanations other than what have been explicitly provided in the material itself, or to offer up implicit explanations for them. For the purposes of this discussion, what exactly “explicit”/”implicit” means doesn’t really matter here – all that matters is the perceived distinction for the viewer (man look at all those copouts I’m pulling!). Whether or not then you can “objectively” do so is really a pointless question, since it’s one of the metrics we’re using to judge this question (and the subsequent ones, but let’s not go too far here) in the first place! So the distinction between attempted description vs. attempted explanation is one that can be important! Now, how exactly he goes about doing this is the focus of the following discussion – they can be seen as offshoots of this central debate between description and explanation.

Subjective vs. objective interpretation, for instance, would make no sense if not for this viewer intent stipulation – since you can never really get “objective” interpretation, setting that up as a dichotomy really doesn’t seem to get you anywhere. But if you’re effectively trying to get as objective as possible, then that essentially amounts to the same thing in this viewpoint. So in this case, we can say that a subjective interpretation is one where you’re trying to analyze explicitly from your own vantage point as much as you can, while an objective interpretation is the attempt to analyze the medium from a position that is perceived to be maximally non-biased.

That wasn’t too bad, right? Great.

I personally enjoy interpreting asdad

I personally enjoy interpreting things from the vantage point of having a briefcase over my face. Only way to be for sure maximally non-biased.

So what the heck does “internal” or “external” mean? Namely, it concerns the idea surrounding the focus of your constructed framework: Are you trying to build a framework to make sense of the show in question, or make sense of a show by putting it into a pre-defined framework? For once (actually, more often than I would like to admit), the “postmodern inversion”, as I like to call it, actually leads to a legitimate insight! These two views are what I call internally and externally focused views. One is focused entirely on the show, and on constructing a model which helps put internal elements in perspective with respect to each other, with disregard to any pre-existing framework that might exist. The other is entirely focused on the opposite – making elements of a show (or the show itself) fit into more overarching frameworks. These two viewpoints might also be quantified as “micro” or “macro”.

One cool thing I like about this idea is there’s a lot of middle ground and places where the exact categories can mix in interesting ways – many questions, for instance, can combine both subjective and objective types of interpretation, and involve both internal and external motivations at large. In fact, I’d say a majority of people end up somewhere in the middle of these scales, with elements taken from each side.

For instance, is the idea centered around figuring out the right place to put a book in a library,

A library can serve as a good metaphor for this. Are you focused on understanding a specific book in this collection, or where exactly the book should be shelved? Although separate, the two questions can also obviously be intertwined!

Another cool thing about this framework is the fact that there seems to be a natural cyclic time evolution that presents itself between each of these opposite categories, which frequently drive people who start out on one side to move towards the other, and more generally to eventually oscillating between the two.

The internal/external struggle tends to be the easiest to visualize, since it mirrors our pattern-seeking nature. We initially look for a framework to help something make “sense” to us, and then once we have we go and apply that framework to helping to understand other things! And when that framework breaks down, we modify and refine it, and then go forth again to the same procedure. This is how science works, as well as how we tend to work (yay psychology!). Rinse and repeat a bunch, and you have a nice cycle in there. And the cool thing here is that you can actually see this in action, such as in Froggykun’s Hyouka meta-review!

The irony that Hyouka, a show all about interpretation and literature, has received so much attention from the exact sphere it draws from, has not escaped me.

The irony that Hyouka, a show all about interpretation and literature, has received so much attention from the exact sphere(s) of interpretation it draws from, has not escaped me.

The descriptive/explicative debate also can work the same way. For instance, people who end up simply trying to describe shows to their friends might eventually try and go online and write reviews about them, thus progressing from descriptive to explicative. And then, after they getting fed up with the whole culture of interpretation and over-interpretation, they go back to simply trying to be more descriptive to carve out their own niche. And then they realize they ended up simply giving episode summaries instead of giving their own viewpoints and/or explanations (as Random Curiosity writers have sometimes been accused of doing), and so decide to start proposing a couple theories again. And so on and so forth. We see nice balances of this type of thing played out in the blogosphere all the time, and we can say contrast posts like Illegenes’s beautiful post on Uchoten Kazoku (explicative and meaning-infused) vs. Inushinde’s posts on Attack on Titan (more descriptive and often non-speculative). 

This, however, seems to defy both description and explanation.

This, however, seems to defy both description and explanation. I APPROVE 1000%.

The same can be said of subjective vs. objective, especially when recommending or reviewing shows. For example, a new blogger could’ve started up his blog because he just want to get his feelings out there concerning a show in question and join the online aniblogging community. But then, he realizes how well-informed and mega-elitist anime bloggers are with all their “facts” and good arguments and such, and so tries to become more “correct” or “informed”. And so he tries to become more objective. But then he realizes, “Hey – people are coming to read MY stuff, so I should talk about MY viewpoints, not the ‘correct’ viewpoints everyone else seems to follow. Because, like, I’m cool and stuff.” And so he goes back to being subjective. And, given time, we can easily get a natural, cyclic thing, because everyone’s opinions about their own writing and projects, as well as those of others, is continually evolving in an interconnected community.

Strangely enough though, anime seems to lampoon people just like us all the time. Because we're all like stuck-up ojou-san's on the inside, right?

Strangely enough though, anime seems to lampoon people just like us all the time. Because we’re all like stuck-up ojou-san’s on the inside, right?

Alright. So now we have 3 pairs of choices, giving a total of 8 combinations (but since all of them are sliding scales, really an infinite number). And these three choices naturally feed off each other over time. Hopefully they should not only be an alternate way of looking at interpretation relative to the other stuff that’s been put out there, but rather should also “collapse” down in a way that relates to the fandom groups detailed much earlier in the post (meaning this framework is a more general framework that can encompass the earlier one). However, there won’t be a one-to-one correspondance between framework and fan group, because the fan doesn’t make the interpretative style, but rather the motivations that drive them. 

Indeed, it is the fan who chooses the framework, rather than the framework which determines the fan. Man postmodern inversions are fun! Also quite cyclic.

I could also be Russian, which would naturally explain the intense connection I share with Sanya.

Alternately, I could be Russian, which would naturally explain the super-intense connection I share with Sanya.

Some final thoughts:

Academics seem to very much follow the type of progression outlined here: initially they start out trying to be descriptive, internal, and objective. Over time, the description turns into explanation, the internal nature is applied externally to other factors, and the research becomes increasingly subjective as many academics end up really trying to make things “fit” into their framework rather than make new ones. Frequently, however, the researcher or his colleagues/opponents will end up challenging and subsequently revising this framework to keep it more objective, providing a “check” on things that tend to come with over-investing oneself in an idea.

Explicative history, or our growing tendency to tell history as part of a connected framework rather than a collection of events, seems to follow the natural progressions outlined here. Also, memory formation has been shown to very much be tied to making stories like this that tie events together. Thus, interpreting stuff and making all these connections actually helps you remember shows better (for me it has helped dramatically), at least in theory.

Most literary analysis frameworks tend to fall into some collection of these. Close reading, for example, very much shuns the idea of description, objective understanding, or externality, instead really allowing yourself to read things into the text. The database model, for instance, also tends to do the same thing, ironically enough. It applies a type of external framework to interpreting anime overall that attempts to be 2 parts descriptive and 1 part explicative, and then attempts to kill the ideas of objectivity. It also leads to some pretty interesting analysis. The idea of the Stand Alone Complex, both literary and otherwise, also attempt to challenge these models.


I wonder if Ghost in the Shell realized that it possibly could become its own Stand Alone Complex…

Finally, we can look at using this framework to interpret the framework itself. And I think it pretty easily falls into the descriptive, objective, and external camp. However, the way it came about (and was subsequently applied) very much mirrors the progression of most things, especially academic thought, so such a clean classification is a bit of an illusion. It is always nice to know that the framework fits within the framework it provides though – prevents things from becoming too meta!

I do want to end on this note though. For all this talk about frameworks and fans and whatnot, I’ve left out one important question: how do fans intrinsically become like this to begin with? How are our values are belief systems formed that give us the reasons we have for doing the things we do? Everyone has a great story about how they got into anime and how it’s shaped who they are, and remembering/realizing this really makes the anime community today all that more amazing, as well as everyone I meet outside of the fandom. I feel like David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speaks to this type of thing quite well (starting around 2:40).

And that’s that. All comments appreciated!

5 responses to “Interpreting Interpretation: (Meta-)Interpretive Frameworks

  1. I read the whole thing over not once but twice. I feel like I learned a great many things from this and perhaps when I am less sleep-deprived I will start to question some of the things you wrote.

    But for now:

    – You will love Gatchaman Crowds. It’s full of interesting meta ideas, the likes of which have never been attempted in such a grand, ambitious fashion in anime before. (by the way, I heartily disliked the anime LOL)

    – That Eren x Levi picture absolutely slayed me. Saved a copy on my half drive so this can be preserved and sanctified for all time.

    – This post had no less than seven pingbacks to my posts. I am extremely happy about how thoroughly you expanded on my ideas and added your own interpretations to this idea of interpretation. Some of your links to me were expected, although others I thought there were probably other bloggers who had captured the ideas a little better than I did for your purposes. For example, making light of “overanalysis” is something Scamp did to great effect in his post about High School DxD episode 1:

    – Speaking of High School DxD, yessssss you’re watching it. BOOSTO

    – You know, I think the reason why I fell so madly in love with Hyouka was because it practically introduced me to this idea of critical inquiry, and combined with my freshman university studies of Japanese, classics and Asian history at the time, I felt like it was written and animated with me as the sole audience in mind. Coming back to it a year later and interpreting it through the lenses it initially gave to me makes me feel like I’ve grown up a notch :’)

    – I consciously enjoy the act of interpretation and reinterpretation. I think it’s one of the joys of being human. I especially adore the act of writing my interpretations down and perpetuating the cycle of reinterpretations for others to join in. I feel like every time I do that, it’s an opportunity at reinventing myself as a person. In a funny way, I feel like I had a hand in writing this, and it’s been a lot of fun tracking our respective writings and how our ideas have bounced off each other.

    – One day, we should totally collaborate on a post. Like, officially.

    • Awesome! Glad to know this post was not only comprehensible but useful.

      Responding in order:
      – You’ve sold me on Gatchaman Crowds! I’ll try and see if I can get around to it before the end of the year.
      – That Eren x Levi pic was by far the best one I’d seen. I’m glad it got some appreciation :D
      – Thanks for the updates. I haven’t really gone through and scoured the older posts of many bloggers I now follow, so it’s good to know Scamp’s done it again!
      – I completely feel you on Hyouka. :’)
      – I couldn’t agree more – it’s a really cool cycle!
      – OMG YES.

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