On literary interpretation and “authorial intent” May 30, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in arts and culture, language and lit.
There's an interesting post (and incredibly hostile response) over at Majikthise
on whether we should interpret literature through so-called "authorial intent": that is, that every work has one (and only one) meaning, and that meaning is the one the author placed there, presumably intentionally.
I find Jeff Goldstein's argument incredibly silly and ill-informed. He seems to make passing reference to various theories (most of which he does not address in any meaningful way) to arrive at the idea that "to believe in malleability of interpretation does not mean you must likewise believe in instability of meaning."
One might wonder why anyone would stake their whole claim to the idea that there is a single meaning to a text (read Ulysses and tell me "the meaning" Mr. Goldstein, please: and make sure you explain exactly what Joyce would have wanted us to take away, leaving nothing out).
An answer begins to emerge as he argues that all "schools of thought" have "embraced the idea of authorial intention," and extends the argument to suggest that a non-essentialist interpretation of race would make race meaningless, because there is "no such thing as black blood…than the project of race cannot be argued."
At the heart of this silly argument is a silly idea: that something must exist in some essential capacity to be relevant. The four "humors" never existed, but that didn't stop them from being essential to the practice of medicine for hundreds of years. And race, while essential to any understanding of contemporary society, as I have argued before is not a biological reality: there is no absolute way to determine race.
What Goldstein has, then, is a gripe with identity politics masquerading as a legitimate argument. He objects to centering the understanding of "meaning" with the reader, arguing that we should locate it with the author instead.
What he misses in his haste to find a logic for his particular political layout is that there is an alternate way of going about this: rather than locate meaning with author or reader, one can locate meaning in the text itself, a locus in which the author's intent, the author's unintended inclusions, and the reader's understanding merge. In so doing , neither writer nor reader is privileged, and instead a constructive act emerges that allows us to see a text as open to a multiplicity of "meanings," not all of which are equally valid, but any of which can be defended with a persuasive critical deployment and an appropriate close reading of the text and related materials.
Even if you don't by the above, the larger issue is that meaning as authorial intention is a useless standard: it requires one to interpret the "intent" of the author via the text and related texts, but each speech-act of the author itself requires interpretation to understand its intent. Therefore no intent can ever be fully established, for to do so you must first decode other intents, themselves requiring interpretation of their own.
As a writer, I understand Goldstein's problems with the de-centering of meaning from intent, and I would be sympathetic did the whole screed not seem to have as its real goal attacking identity politics* and establishing essentialist ideals that are, perhaps, necessary to sustain the implied world-view expressed in Goldstein's paper.
Regardless of his intentions, though (and note I am reading what I perceive to be an underlying message in the text, not a conscious choice by Goldstein), Goldstein's argument does not hold up. Its biggest problem is that it fails to recognize that categories can be useful without being "absolute." Race (and idea he keeps returning to) is something we study not because of its absolute value, but because its constructed meanings are important to understanding our world.
De-centering meaning from intent (which is our only option, given that no one has perfect control over their own text) is the only way to approach literature and account for its complexity. The best works are beautiful precisely because they are complex, able to speak to people across years and cultures, able to be read by many and interpreted by many any gain richness through these interactions.
Goldstein fails to understand that there is no way to read intent apart from interpretation, and that the text may exist beyond intent (is it possible to watch pre 9/11 movies set in New York the same way anymore?), for it has its own existence as a locus between author and audience.
[*There are difficulties with Identity politics, but those difficulties do not undercut the necessity of the project: if nothing else, understanding how identity is constructed is essential to combating destructive constructions.]