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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.
Alan Thomas says
Loving this topic.
Sometimes I so wish I were able to interject a question into the conversation. In this case, I think it would have been interesting to consider works of today if they were discovered by a civilization thousands of years from now, but lacking context. For instance, let’s say they found Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It”, without being aware it was a parody. If a scholar later found Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, what would that mean for previous scholarship about the song? Is it really still valid, or does it suddenly look pretty foolish? Or for a less extreme example, what if the only Rolling Stones song that survived was “Far Away Eyes”? But then they found a fragment of “Paint it Black”, what now?
where “in” the text (not a 3D object) could meaning be found, isn’t it always already made thru our uses of the text and then what’s to limit our uses but perhaps habits and social norms and or acceptance by people who matter to us (if anyone) in the cases of novelty?
Very appropriate that this came out the day after the new Childish Gambino video
How is that? I listened to this episode and I watched the Childish Gambino video, but ‘authorial intent’ did not seem to be the theme of the video. “No name-dropping” rule, remember.
Peter Sattler says
I think Jason simply meant (!!!) that many people online are currently in a tizzy, trying to figure out what the video’s images — of violence and executions, of people dancing unaffected, of old cars and white pursuers — mean (!!!).
Yep. Many parts of it are open to different interpretations and it generated a ton of thinkpieces. That’s all I meant
Peter Sattler says
Hey, I the guy (maybe the only one) who suggested Knapp and Michaels — and I will go to the mat for the idea that the meaning of a text simply is what it’s author intended. That said, it was too bad that this half of the episode didn’t get to “Against Theory” at all. I hope that when they do address “AT” and meaning as intention, the guys will talk about the following:
— Understanding that the meaning of a work is what it’s author intends is NOT a method. It s simply a description of what we are doing when we try to interpret what a text means. Therefore, there is no reason why the “problem of figuring out what a work means” (quoting from above) should go away if you accept K&M’s argument.
— Indeed, it is only through the idea that meaning=intention that you can imagine an interpretation being *wrong* or *right*. A person who is simply reporting what an artwork makes him think of is NOT making a claim about its meaning, and is not really interpreting the work (which mean not talking about intention). As Michaels puts it in another essay, it would be similar to two peopled disagreeing about what a sunset mads them feel (“hopeless” vs. “hopeful”): there is no real disagreement worth having.
— Similarly, without meaning=intention, how can you talk about a work of art as *failing* to do what it is supposed to do — or even failing in any way?
— Without meaning=intention, can we distinguishing between what we are doing when we encounter objects that are not products of human creation and intention vs what we do when we do encounter human-made objects. Things that merely sound like language (the whispering trees) are not language; it would be weird to try to interpret them. And if we DID, it would be because we imagined some intentional meaning behind the sounds. (See the sunset story above, or the seaweed poem examples in the text.)
— Last, I want to hear what exact they fellows mean (!) when they say that meaning cannot equal intention because there “is still room for multiple interpretations.” How does that follow? We can disagree about our interpretation, but what we’re disagreeing about — if we’re talking about meaning (and not just “effect”) — is intention. Are you saying that all interpretations are merely reports of feelings — and thus not subject to being right or wrong? I guess that would be one way of having room for multiples — and multiples of multiples of “interpretations.”
Clearly, I think that you are already brushing this issue aside far too quickly — and all I’ve read is the paragraph above (and some side comments). Perhaps I’ve feeling defensive of a work I really love. But my defensiveness is not an interpretation of your words; it’s just a reaction. And I come to the reaction after trying to interpret what your utterances meant — which is exactly what you intended for them to mean.
Robert Williams says
I was once set on doing literary theory (and criticism) but then thought better of it. (I worked on an English PhD in a literature and philosophy concentration program at Notre Dame, and I can attest if it needs attesting: South Bend is definitely not New York City.) Listening to your valiant attempts to think through these four essays was a profoundly depressing experience. These essays are dreck, bad literary theory, hence hack philosophy. But it’s worse: the fame and influence of these four essays remain emblems of the rot at the core of academic literary study. Wimsatt and Beardsley falsely think intention is some mysterious unreachable mental condition prior to action, then draw unhelpful conclusions from this poor beginning. Barthes and Foucault think the literary author is some oppressive divinity, invoking Nietzsche glibly and emptily, drawing characteristically drastic conclusions from this dismal premise. Knapp and Michaels, in a better world, would never have been allowed to publish their atrocious paper. Intention and meaning are not always identical, as they claim. Here is one (Austinian) objection to this essay: “if I glance at you meaningfully, that is between us, but if I glance at you intentionally, I have included a third. I may give up a pawn unintentionally in poorly carrying out a strategy, but if I give it up meaninglessly, the strategy itself was poor. I know how to give the meaning of a word but not how to give the intention of a word, though I might tell you what someone intended in using a word in a certain place. If Hamlet had asked ‘Do you think I intended country matters?’ Ophelia might well have been more alarmed than she was….‘meaning’ and ‘intention’ are not, on one clear test of identity, identical in meaning. So the relation between the concepts remains to be worked out.” These words are by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, the thinker I went to graduate school to write about, but whose sense and profundity was unknown and unknowable in a world where essays like these four pass for thought.
s. wallerstein says
Intention in the broadest sense, that is, in the context not only of the author’s biography (which includes unconscious factors of course) not also of the culture he or she wrote in, seems important.
I at least read to meet another mind (which can be that of early Greek culture as well as of Homer for example) and having some background data on what that other mind may have intended when he or she wrote is helpful.
There are those who read to meet themselves, not another mind, and that takes little effort. Sure, I can read the Odyssey as an ecological tract or read King Lear as a powerful feminist statement, but then I haven’t learned anything new from reading them: I’ve just read my current attitudes into them. I don’t see the point of doing that..
The point for me (I’m not a literary scholar or a scholar at all) in reading, say, the Odyssey or King Lear is to learn how people with radically different mindsets than my own saw the world or to share in that mindset insofar as I can identify with, say, Odysseus killing all the suitors and slave-women, actions which imply values very different than mine today or maybe not so different (which is one of the main points behind reading).
In case you have not already listened to it, sounds like episode 111 on Gadamer would be of great interest to you.
Very interesting concept! Cool convo. Two issues that I think prevented as smooth a discussion as possible:
1. Neither Wes nor Seth tried to establish a ground of agreement, or explain what they thought the other’s position was so they could figure out where they specifically disagreed. Numerous times in the episode it seemed like they were arguing with absolutist versions of each other’s points: either that authorial intent is irrelevant or no more useful than any other fact for the purpose of interpreting a work, or that authorial intent is the only way to find meaning.
2. They didn’t establish early in the discussion what they meant by meaning! Of course, that’s not an easy task at all and will probably be its own episode, but it seems like the substance of Seth and Wes’ disagreement was they think meaning is, not what method is best for finding it.
Personally I think I agree with Seth, in that there is no true interpretation, and in finding the “best” interpretation, the author’s intent is just a data point. That being said, it’s an incredibly useful data point most of the time, as the author’s context, character and related works can form a key to creating the most beautiful and coherent interpretation of the work, which is generally the kind of interpretation I think is best.
I watched this, paused it, then watched people try to interpret Childish Gambino’s song, and then turned it off – when I heard his voice – and came back.
@PEL If an author leaves traces of theirself in their text. Can’t traces of the text be found in the lives of their author?
Jason Engelund says
Collaboration Makes Meaning
Does a tree falling in the woods with no one around make noise? Who cares?
An artist or author may have great intentions, and talents at crafting and channeling context and depth of information, but their work is only the materials it is made from without the reader.
What is the role of the reader? Think of the artwork as a vessel and the reader is the one who fills it.
The artist can embrace the idea of the “read” while making decisions during creating, or ignore them.
Jason Engelund says
As an artist I use ambiguity intentionally to activate interpretation. It’s a device that activates the participation of the viewer/reader. Homographs in writing is an example, that can be used to create a fork in the road of interpreting an abstract poem.
Art can activate. One way to think of it is art focuses and entertainment distracts. A reader who doesn’t collaborate, who doesn’t infuse themself into the meaning through the performance of the read,is passive. Too many passive citizens is a bad thing.
Also, as an artist, not a philosopher, isn’t this topic an example of a Western thought habit, searching for an absolute? It starts with assuming there is an absolute and a definitive. …is this an appropriate use of my new favorite phrase, it’s Turtles All The Way Down?