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?


Anonymous Peter Sattler said...

Hi Kieran,

If you have read any of my recent Valve comments, you know that I have found myself agreeing with most everything you have said on this topic. And your newest post is no exception to that rule.

To begin, I appreciate how you consider “Against Theory” as an argument not simply about meaning-creation, but ultimately about meaning-recovery. That is, it’s really about the question, “What am I doing when I am trying to interpret the meaning of an utterance – when I am trying, for example, to interpret a poem correctly.” Some theorists purport to devise systems and methods for arriving at how one should/could interpret a text; Michaels and Knapp and Fish say that, when we’re interpreting, there’s really one thing we ever do. (This is why their’ ideas are “against theory” and not a theory or a method itself, bearing any pragmatic consequences.)

But I’m not writing now to rehash their argument, but to comment on your own intuitions about what you do when you are interpreting the meaning of a poem (or some other literary article). I like –- and can recognize in my own practice –- the idea that we critics tend to shoot beyond “plausible” intentions to “the most intricate intentionality.” When we deal with a great writer or artist, we tend to find every mark, every word, every phrase to be potentially meaningful. Sometimes it seems as if nothing could be accidental.

Perhaps, to borrow liberally from Nelson Goodman (and something I typed at the Valve), we sometimes decide that certain authors, genres, and/or utterances are more intentionally and semantically “dense” than others. Perhaps we decide that, with certain authors and utterances, every difference -- in words, the number of syllables, the spelling, the sounds, the symbolic connotations -- potentially makes a difference. With other authors and utterances, of course, we decide that the message is less dense and more “disjunct” or “attenuated”: every difference does not, we decide, make as much of a difference.

Pushed to an extreme, we interpreters and critics sometimes treat literary text like Holy Writ, not because we think writers are gods or are divinely inspired, but because we think of them as (potentially) in control of each aspect of their work and their artificial world. We give them the endless benefit of the creative doubt – to be, intentionally speaking, everywhere in their world. (“Perhaps Joyce meant to include that so-called typo; perhaps Flaubert wanted that metaphor to be overblown; perhaps Courbet planned for that torso to appear flat.”)

Perhaps, in the end, we take the intentionality of artists –- and their intentional relationship to their creations –- more seriously than we could ever take the intentionality of a god. Because, if we believed in that type of divine creative control in the natural world, we really would study the convolutions of a cauliflower for signs of meaning and look for poetry washed up on the beach.

Just a thought. Thanks for helping me to think it.

5:13 PM  

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