On four essays about how to interpret artworks: “The Intentional Fallacy” by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley (1946), “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes (1967), “What Is an Author?” by Michel Foucault (1969), and “Against Theory” by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels (1982).
When you’re trying to figure out what, say, a poem means, isn’t the best way to do that to just ask the author, if he or she is available? Or maybe to see if the author wrote in a contemporary diary any notes about the poem? According to “New Critics” Wimsatt and Beardsley, no, we should forget about anything external to the work itself. Well, OK, yes, understanding things like the customs or use of language at the time something was written, or even how an author idiosyncratically used a particular phrase, can be helpful, but this is still different than relying on the author to simply tell you what it means. Do authors really have a privileged vantage on the meaning of a work? (Read the article.)
Barthes and Foucault likewise argue against the cult of genius that places the author’s personality and intentions at the center of art criticism. Barthes stresses that the work is not the product of a singular intellect but is a “tissue of citations,” i.e., artists are channeling everything they’ve been influenced by. These citations all converge on the reader, who should be in charge of determining the work’s meaning, not the author. The work in itself always admits of multiple interpretations, whatever the author might have intended, and in fact once something is written down, it becomes in a certain way autonomous, independent of the author, in effect speaking for itself; Barthes says that “every text is eternally written here and now.” (Read the article.)
Foucault agrees that we should lose the image of the genius behind the work, and compares this loss to Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” in that the task in so declaring in both cases is to figure out all the implications of this absence. He argues that the artist’s name serves as a social classificatory function: “Aristotle” refers less crucially to a specific person (we’re not even totally sure that all the texts attributed to him were by the same person) than to a way of marking certain texts with distinction and historical importance. He thinks that getting rid of the author as tyrant over a work’s meaning opens up space for numerous kinds of interpretations. (Read the article.)
Both the Foucault and Barthes articles are overly dramatic. Yes, the romantics were perhaps going too far in the worship of individual geniuses, ignoring the similarities between the activity of today’s creators and the long history in which storytellers were just relating shared cultural tropes. Yes, artists are synthesizers of influences, and even the tools of craft use to synthesize those influences are largely not original to any one artist, but the final product that you are experiencing was still designed by someone, and the social cost to devaluing (and so discouraging) that activity is perhaps higher than the benefit of freeing listeners from the worship of genius.
Knapp and Michaels first present E.D. Hirsch (who had responded to Wimsatt/Michaels in 1967) as a defender of authorial intent, but then say that both Hirsch and the New Critics have it wrong: The intended meaning just IS the work’s meaning. It’s not that the work gains its meaning from a meaning in the author’s head; there aren’t two meaning-entities (one in the work and one in the head), but just one, and it’s right there in the work so long as it really is an authentic instance of language. To illustrate: even if some marks on a rock looked like language, if there was no author with an intended meaning, then we’d have to say that it was just a coincidental resemblance, that no language was on the rock at all. The authors conclude that because there is no distance between the meaning to be understood and the author’s intended meaning, there is no role for literary theory at all. This seems to all four of us an unwarranted stretch; there’s still the problem of figuring out what a work means, and there’s still room for multiple interpretations, and theory is a matter of establishing different sorts of interpretations. Understanding that the utterance has an intended meaning is different than understanding what that meaning is. (Read the article.)
Now, in part one here, we only thoroughly get through the first of these articles. This continues on part two, or get the ad-free, unbroken Citizen Edition. This will also get you access to a one-hour follow-up discussion between Wes and Mark on this topic, in which we bring up T.S. Elliot, linguistic theories of meaning, and other stuff, and I’m warning you right now that ep. 190 will be first-half public, second-half behind the paywall, so go ahead and get an account now.
Barthes image by Charles Valsechi.