Sunday, September 04, 2005

don't misquote me but...



'I', writes Barthes, 'is not an innocent subject that is anterior to texts. . . . The I that approaches the text is itself already a plurality of other texts, of infinite or, more precisely, lost codes (whose origins are lost).'[1]

The importance of authorial intention (hereafter AI) to some people obviously stems from a desire to safeguard interpretation, from the dangers of an anything goes 'relativism'. In this line of thinking, meaning is not created by readers but is embedded in the text by an author. The task for the interpreter then is to discern what the original author intended and to use this as a criterion for adjudicating proper interpretations.

While this is a most noble task, and one that I have often subscribed to in the past (and still slip into in moments of rhetorical weakness), it is I would suggest, at the same time, an inexact one. Let us take for example Paul's letter to the Romans. After centuries of intense study, scholars cannot agree as to whether Paul wrote to Jews, to Gentiles, or to both; depending on which group one thinks the author addressed, scholars have come up with any number of reasons why Paul sought to address them. If these basic questions of 'intention' cannot be settled, how is 'AI' going to arbitrate between these subtleties. The affair ends up being quite circular.

I think authorial intention is misguided as the sole retainer of meaning for a number reasons:

The notion of meaning that results from a strict adherence to AI ends up resorting to a pre-linguistic meaning, meaning is something which the author wills. Terry Eagleton states:




It is as if meaning is a ghostly, wordless mental act which is then 'fixed' for all time in a particular set of material signs. It is an affair of consciousness, rather than of words. Quite what such a wordless consciousness consists in is not made plain. Imagine looking up from the text, and mean something, is the meaning any different from the words that express it? [2]


Here I quote Eagleton because he will say it so much better than me!




Even if critics could obtain access to an author's intention, would this securely ground the literary text in a determinate meaning? What if we asked for an account of the meaning of the author's intentions, and then for an account of that, and so on? Security is possible here only if authorial meanings are what Hirsch takes them to be: pure, solid, 'self-identical' facts which can be unimpeachably used to anchor the work. But this is a highly dubious way of seeing any kind of meaning at all. Meanings are not as stable and determinate as Hirsch thinks, even authorial ones - and the reason they are not is because, as he will not recognize, they are the products of language, which always has something slippery about it. It is difficult to Know what it could be to have a 'pure' intention or express a 'pure' meaning; it is only because Hirsch holds meaning apart from language that he is able to put trust in such chimeras. An author is translated and variously interpreted just like any other.[3]


Another reason I feel AI is misguided is because it assumes that if the author is not the determiner of meaning, then the text can mean anything. Eagleton humorously calls this fallacy the argument from the floodgates. He rants:



Once you allow one person to be sick out of the car window without Imposing a lengthy gaol [jail] sentenced then before you know where you are motorists will be throwing up out of their vehicles all the time, and the roads will become impassable.[4]


This fallacy is often invoked after a detractor of 'AI' has just spent considerable words on the deficiencies of 'AI', in which the defender of 'AI' cheekily muses about the detractors intentions.

It is true that I desire my own work to be understood and hence I do show an interest in 'AI' after all (although my grammar at times precludes this possibility). The wrong assumption, however, is that without 'AI' readers can make texts mean whatever they like. There are still good interpretations and bad ones. Even to ones detest, writing is like giving birth, and once the text is severed from the umbilical cord it is no longer our own. We simply offer it to the world and see if it convinces anyone. If it convinces many, it might even become a consensus (although consensuses never seem to last long). The adjudicators of good and bad become what Stanley Fish calls our interpretive communities.

My final remark is that what one sees depends primarily on where one stands. There is no known way to shed our selves from our social contexts. We can not pick ourselves up by our bootstraps up to Olympian heights so as to get the objective view of what the author meant. This is even more precarious when the author is dead, and cannot answer our queries.

I offer this in humility believing in a God who makes meaning possible, but conceding that meaning is not a possession, 'For now we see in a mirror dimly.'

-------------------
[1] Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 10.
[2] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 67.
[3] Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 69.
[4] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 205.

3 comments:

Sameer said...

Just a couple of brief thoughts: First, the notion of intertextuality a la Barthes as it relates to authorial intention... The fact (if it is a fact) that each person's consciousness is either composed of or integrally related to (which is it?) a plurality of further texts does not in itself dissolve the notion of AI. There has to be something that accounts for the variety of textual configurations that are produced (causally at least) by subjects. When asking what fact accounts for the variation in these configurations, or why a text produced by a particular author configures its significations in *this* way rather than that, all we have left is something dispositional in the subject. Intertextuality then speaks only to conceptual "sources" of texts, not to their various arrangements and uses, which constitute new texts which require subjects, if not to fund their meaning, then at least to fund their unique individual semiotic configurations. In this way, the bare causal connection that connects the text to the author is sufficient to argue for the retention of *some* notion of AI. The criticism about authorial intent and "pre-linguistic meaning," sounds like a rewording of the standard Wimsatt-Beardsley line about the inaccessability of mental states and their inadequacy to fix a determinate interpretation. But speech-act theory, for example, is compatible with the denial of a "private language" and serves to bring textuality into the realm of public actions, where attempting to get "behind" the words to the consciousness of the author is not necessary for the determination of what a subject has "done" by way of a text. Furthermore, the conceiving of texts as mediators of speech-actions is compatible with Barthes' account of intertextuality, or at least not obviously contradictory to it. In short, even if we are reticient about affirming an individual author's ability to fix the semantics of her utterances, I see no reason to deny that she in fact regularly fixes the pragmatics of her utterances.

Sameer said...

I confess that in my post I was only making use of “intertextuality” in the minimalist sense akin to “allusion.” Indeed, that minimalistic sense is all I can make of Barthes or Kristeva’s explications, and I take much of their attempts at capitalizing on the utility of this notion vis a vis hermeneutics to be largely confused, nebulous and not very carefully or precisely argued (when arguments are offered at all). Nevertheless, even when reading my previous post on a more robust Barthesian reading of “intertextuality,” I think there remains a legitimate point to be made. That is, even Barthes recognizes the authorship of texts in the sense of agent causation – that is, physical objects upon which a series of natural language strings are inscribed (granting that he would equally admit of *any* object of interpretation as a “text,” including tables, Tupperware and tapioca). Still, in order for, say, a book to function as an “orchestration of the already-written,” and in order to at the same time be properly called an *object* of interpretive play on the part of the reader, it is necessary that the book function as an individualized (discrete) textual entity, even if its *functionality* as “text” (exhibted perhaps, in its reading) consists in a seamless flow of pre-existent langue, as Barthes would have it. It would seem that Barthes himself recognizes this, in that he construes the power of the writer (scriptor) as producing a “mixing of writings” which are anterior to him. The only sense I can make of this idea is that the creation of a discrete text (e.g. a book) should really be seen as a unique mixing and representation of pre-existent texts (the citation or individuation of which is impossible). But it is easy to see that this understanding dramatically neuters his bold proclamation of the “death of the author” precisely by locating in an author the ability to uniquely rearrange or configure pre-existing texts, albetit in such a way as to produce (facilitate?) the manifold textures that find their play in the responsive reader of that book. To avoid this result, he would either have to deny the existence of linguistic objects, their causal production by humans, and the phenomenon of reading (understood in a very minimalistic, pre-theoretical way). Each of these can easily be established by simple empirical observation and their denial looks pretty inadvisable to me -- ludicrous even. So the implication of Barthes’ own characterization, whether he recognized it or not, is that the author still ends up playing a fundamental role in the shaping of meaning. In any case, I don’t see any good reason (indeed, I don’t find Barthes giving me many) to accept his notion of intertextuality, so my own motivations for retaining the concept of authorial intent (albeit in a chastened formulation) are altogether different than the line suggested above.

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