Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Interpretive Charity

In 1982, a minor conflagration broke out in literary studies, with the publication of Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels' "Against Theory". Their thesis is that it is a mere platitude that the meaning of a text is what the author intended, so that theoretical discussions of this relationship, denials and elaborate defences, are equally redundant.

The claim is so bold and so extraordinary as to invite a parodic response: presumably, any objection depends on mistaking the meaning of the argument, since the authors intend it to be irrefutable. (See Goodman's proof that p.) So, criticism is a treacherous business.

How do Knapp and Michaels argue for the trivial truth of what would seem to be a controversial claim? They appeal to a now-famous example: the "wave poem", in which the random lapping of water on a beach inscribes, by astonishing coincidence, the characters of Wordsworth's lyric, "A slumber did my spirit steal". As they point out, the absence of intention seems to make the marks meaningless: "what you thought to be poetry turns out not to be poetry at all [...] because it isn't language."

Apart from its obvious defect of logic – it could show, at most, that the author's intention is necessary, not sufficient, for meaning – the use of this example is puzzling. No claim about the relation between linguistic meaning and intention could settle the dispute about "intentionalism", since it arises just as well for non-linguistic art. Is the meaning of painting a matter of the painter's intention? Or the meaning of a symphony just what the composer intended it to be? In any case, the meaning of the sentences of a novel, however it relates to the intentions of the author, underdetermines what we call "the meaning of the text": it leaves the most interesting thematic and psychological questions about the fiction wide open.

Critics of Knapp and Michaels sometimes stop at this point. (Philosophers have been especially harsh.) But we can see how absurd it is to interpret them as making a claim about the meaning of words by repeating a question pressed, albeit with some embarrassment, by W. J. T. Mitchell:
What happens [...] if we (whether theorists or plain practitioners) intend these terms ["meaning" and "intention"] to mean something different?
Taken as a theory about linguistic meaning, the Knapp-Michaels doctrine is latently paradoxical. They must be up to something else.

The problem is that distinguishing linguistic and artistic meaning doesn't seem to make their claim more plausible. Intention is not sufficient to generate the meaning of a sculpture, or a sonnet, or a song. Art is not magic: one can fail, and failure is precisely a discrepancy between the actual meaning of your creation, and what you wanted it to be. This shows, in turn, that art can mean something unintended: intention is not necessary, either. ("I meant to write a biting satire of materialism, but ended up with an affectionate farce." "I meant to depict a glorious hero, but created a comic fool.") There is such a thing a biographical speculation about an artist, but it is not what we principally mean when we talk about "interpretation". The "platitude" is not a platitude, after all.

When I reflect on what I am trying to do when I engage in interpretation – and here I make no claim to generality – it seems to be the opposite of "intentionalism": casting a veil of ignorance over the artist's actual intentions, but not her literary and historical conditions, I ask what hypothetical intentions would make most sense of the work. "Making most sense", here, goes beyond the ordinary principle of charity: the target is not the most plausible intentional story, but the one that attributes the most intricate intentionality. The more significance it finds, the better the interpretation; and the best gives meaning to everything: it leaves nothing inert.

Put this way, it seems a pretty queer activity. Why abstract from intention but nothing else? Why give in to this hunger for meaning, which flatly ignores the limits of the artist? It has its satisfactions, but so do many other games one can play with a text, a composition, or an installation. It doesn't seem to correspond to anything. (Thus the pull of critical pluralism.)

Here we find the real force of the wave poem example. Just as no string of marks has linguistic meaning unless it was the product of intention, so, I believe, nothing counts as a work of art unless it was intended to be one. But if interpretation is what I have said it is (at least for me), why should it be attentive to this one intention, among others? Why not play the same game with the wave poem, with a cauliflower that happens to be shaped like a human head, or with nature itself?

Monday, July 18, 2005

On Television

Some weeks ago, a question was raised here about the literary depiction of work. My interest then was in work as vocation, and its relation to love. But there was another issue, about the representation of work in all its repetitive, miniature glory. I was provoked by the claim that, while this is neglected by the novel, it is the daily bread of television.

On reflection, I doubt that this is true: someone argued at the time that much of television "work" is sensational: the work of detectives, criminal lawyers, astronauts. This observation echoes Raymond Williams, in Television: Technology and Cultural Form:
it is doubtful whether, before the epoch of television series and serials, anything like the current proportion of dramatic attention to crime and illness had ever existed.
One reason for this is obvious enough: we have to be hooked, both in order to resist channel surfing, and in order to survive the incessant distraction of advertising breaks.
There is a characteristic kind of opening sequence, meant to excite interest, which is in effect a kind of trailer for itself. [...] It is then not surprising that so many of these opening moments are violent or bizarre: the interest aroused must be strong enough to initiate the expectation of (interrupted but sustainable) sequence.
Some of the most ambitious parts of Williams' book are attempts to analyze the distinctive "flow" of television sequencing, the pattern of an evening's entertainment, which he finds almost unprecedented.
It is indeed very difficult to say anything about this. It would be like trying to describe having read two plays, three newspapers, three or four magazines, on the same day that one has been to a variety show and a lecture and football match.
These excerpts may suggest that Williams always argues from medium to message, finding the content of our experience to be determined by apparently extraneous facts about the economics and technology of its production. That isn't so: his central theme, in fact, is the role of intention in the organization of broadcasting, its indeterminism, and our responsibility for it.

But, however qualified it must be, the slide from form to content is irresistible...

I love television, but apart from sporting events, I rarely watch for an extended period: I don't want the kind of structure and flow that Williams investigates. What I like is to have "my show": an engagement of ritual and habit, of repetition, a weekly encounter with distant friends. Can it be a coincidence that the shows I adopt are themselves quotidian, if sometimes in playfully eccentric ways, series of variations on a theme, like Northern Exposure and Scrubs?

These programs are about work, in both senses of the earlier post: about trying to inhabit a meaningful role, and about the small triumphs and failures of doing so. They treat relationships (not always romantic love) as ongoing projects of mutual attention. They are exercises in the moral philosophy of everyday life. And the form is not irrelevant to this: it is a pattern of routine and renewal; these are shows to be watched each week, not in the marathons that the networks occasionally put on.

The medium may not be the message; but for me, the television of love and work could only be television – nothing else.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Thin Men

This post is a sort of recantation. When I first read David Sylvester's Looking at Giacometti, I was infuriated. I found Giacometti's sculptures deeply moving, and (as I might have put it at the time) I wanted to know what they say about the human condition. Sylvester, by contrast, takes Giacometti's art to be about art.
Giacometti's peculiarity is to combine rather traditional aims with an untraditional self-consciousness about the limitations of his art. His art is self-regarding, a criticism of art, a laying naked of certain of art's paradoxes, an analysis of the process by which a work of art is achieved [...]
A convenient interpretation for the critic, who gets to write about his favourite subject – what is art? – even while pretending to interpret it. It turns out, in fact, that the work is really about him. Reflexivity can be sophisticated, like irony. But, also like irony, it cannot go "all the way down" without becoming empty. Art criticism about art about the criticism of art? Not what I wanted to read. And so, impatiently, I put the book aside.

I shouldn't have been so quick. For one thing, Sylvester is a gifted describer of painting and scuplture, not just when he deals with technique, but in conjuring an image for discussion. Evocations of affect are followed by explanation. For instance:
Giacometti['s] sculptures seem to carry an aura of atmosphere around them and to expand and contract like a lung [... they] seem to present figures as they are perceived while time passes.

The roughness of the sculpture's surface contributes by having the same sort of effect as loose free brushstrokes which from a few inches away are seen as no more than marks on the canvas. The slenderness contributes, in that the sculpture as an object doesn't get in the way, is insubstantial enough not to fill the field of vision as one gets near, continues to have space around it.
For another thing, Giacometti's painting certainly is about mimesis, among other things, with its construction lines and internal frames – and this applies as well to some of the sculptures, like Suspended Sphere and Cage.

But mainly I was wrong to suspect the idea of reflexivity, or to find it inconsistent with the emotional force of art. Sylvester does not exactly argue for his interpretation, but he does stress Giacometti's constant insistence on likeness and copying, his refusal to be classified as a conceptual artist, and his rejection of themes in his figurative work, other than what people look like. When I first read this, my response was brisk: if we take it literally, it rules out Sylvester's interpretation as much as mine; it is no less "thematic" to make art about art than about loneliness or life. What this overlooks is that, unless she is an idiot savant, every artist says something about the kind of art she is making.

This is a crude formulation: it won't do as it stands. (For instance, it raises difficult questions about intention that I will try to address in a future post.) Nor does it quite confirm Sylvester's view, which regards artistic self-consciousness as "untraditional". My thought is that it is more or less inevitable, and has nothing much to do with modernism or the post-modern, even if they have made it more explicit and sometimes more exclusive. Very roughly, you can't make art without knowing that you are doing so, and thus without expressing your thoughts about what art is and should be.

Giacometti's best sculptures – Man Walking, the busts of his brother Diego – are perfect because their knowledge of art is the same as their knowledge of the human condition. Sylvester comes close to saying just this:
The confrontation [with these figures] seems to say that the reality of the person is only established through his relation to another but that this relation reveals the solitude of each, the untraversable distance between them, recognises that this other is no projection or extension of oneself or creature subject to oneself but a being separate from oneself. In affirming this state of affairs, Giacometti's art defines a situation intolerable for the artist, for any artist wants to take possession and control of all he sees.
Right, exactly – I now think – but not just artists.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"Anything Goes"

My last post was bleak, but in fact I am optimistic about teaching, and enjoy it very much. (Nor do I agree with Lionel Trilling that "pedagogy is a depressing subject to all persons of sensibility".) My pedagogical mentor is Annette Baier, one of the best moral philosophers to reflect seriously on the problems of teaching ethics. In "Theory and Reflective Practices", she poses a challenge to the "standard undergraduate class in [applied ethics]" which "acquaints the student with a variety of theories, and shows the difference in the guidance they give":
We, in effect, give courses in comparative ethical theory, and like courses in comparative religion, their usual effect in the student is loss of faith in any of the alternatives presented. We produce relativists and moral skeptics, persons who have been convinced by our teaching that whatever they do in some difficult situation, some theory will condone it, another condemn it
This is worrying in part because students of introductory ethics are already disposed to relativism or subjectivism, to say that everyone is entitled to her opinion, no matter what it is, so that it is worthless to engage in argument. Like others who teach this sort of class, I spend some time responding to this scepticism, encouraging students to realize that they cannot be sincere when the insist that "anything goes". Baier's fear is that a common pedagogical style is tacitly working against us, so that "the whole procedure is […] defeating its own ends. In attempting to increase moral reflectiveness we may be destroying what conscience there was in those we teach."

This is excessively dramatic: I doubt that introductory ethics, however badly taught, will make students "turn from morality to self-interest, or mere convenience" as Baier suggests. But what to do?

It depends on the proper diagnosis of "student relativism". Two common interpretations must contain some part of the truth: that it is the result of fallacious but tempting arguments, and that it is a confused expression of cultural tolerance. But I am increasingly convinced of a third account: student relativism is principally a lack of faith in the power of reason or argument to make progress in ethical thought.

Students begin by regarding argument as mere disputation, on the politician's model, not as a way of working through the grounds for a view. The idea of learning from arguments is new to them; it is something they have hardly experienced, and they need to be convinced. So it is counter-productive to give the impression that every argument can be contested, every position defended. One of my tasks in teaching the class is to valorize reason: to convey some sense of the power and simplicity of good argument.

This is why teaching for me is partly about optimism, about hope. I like very much what Shaftesbury says about the idea of humour as inimical to reason in his Sensus Communis (1709):
To this I answer, That according to the Notion I have of Reason, neither the written Treatises of the Learned, nor the set Discourses of the Eloquent, are able of themselves to teach the use of it. 'Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it.