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Arguing over TextsThe Rhetoric of Interpretation$
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Martin Camper

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190677121

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190677121.001.0001

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Letter versus Spirit

Letter versus Spirit

Chapter:
(p.68) 4 Letter versus Spirit
Source:
Arguing over Texts
Author(s):

Martin Camper

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190677121.003.0004

Chapter 4 turns its attention to the stasis of letter versus spirit. Traditionally, this stasis has been understood as pitting the exact words of a text against the author’s intent, but the chapter expands the notion of spirit to include other animating forces of textual meaning, such as an overarching principle of interpretation brought by readers to the text. The chapter shows how both the letter and spirit of a text can be divided, with arguers disputing the text’s real versus apparent letter or the author’s real versus apparent intent. To demonstrate how arguers construe authorial intention for their own ends, the chapter analyzes the controversy during the 2008 presidential campaign over the “God damn America” sound bite extracted from a sermon preached by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s then-pastor. Critics dismissed Wright’s defense of his intentions, pointing to the sermon’s exact wording as evidence of his, and by extension Obama’s, anti-Americanism.

Keywords:   2008 presidential campaign, authorial intention, Barack Obama, dissociation, Jeremiah Wright, letter versus spirit, literal meaning, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, political rhetoric, sound bite

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