I’ve been busy reading and writing for my classes (Well, not, actually… recently I’ve been watching Mad Men and pretending that I’m thinking about writing for my classes), so I’ve not had the extra energy to work up a thorough and thoughtful post here, but I’ve got some extraneous thoughts that don’t belong in my papers. I’m putting them here so I don’t keep trying to shoehorn them into the essay
I’m writing on intention in interpretation for a class on Analytic Aesthetics. Now I’m not automatically against using biographical information or an author’s stated intent as an aid to interpreting a work. I was talking about Beckett to a guy during the meet and greet week when we all first arrived here and mentioned something about Beckett’s infamous ‘subtraction’ revelation instead of Joyce’s method of addition. In the midst of this, Krapp’s Last Tape came up, which has distinct parallels to this revelation, as evinced by one of Beckett’s statements to his biographer John Knowles along the lines of “Let’s get this straight once and for all: Krapp’s revelation was on the dock during a storm, mine was in my mother’s room.” He stopped me mid-sentence, because this apparently threw doubt on my pomo-litcrit cred, and asked why I felt the need to analyze KLT biographically… I don’t remember exactly what I said, conveniently, but it was half-retreat, half-why-the-hell-not? However unnecessary it is to the enjoyment and interpretation of the play, it is nevertheless interesting to know, and the parallel says more about Beckett’s method of writing than any piece of Beckett’s writing by itself.
But I’ve been thinking about what is actually meant by ‘authorial intent,’ (though debating what is meant by ‘intent’ isn’t relevant to my paper topic, which is one of the things I’m hating about writing in an analytic style— no matter if a basic premise is flawed, I’ve got to dilly-dally around that and address a specific issue in a specific prior paper), and obviously about its relevance to interpretation. As most people familiar with the topic know, anti-intentionalists (generally treated in what I’ve read as descendants of Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ and jouissane) completely refute the relevance of authorial intent, while the intentionalists campaign that authorial intent is the sole source of a text’s meaning. But what I find puzzling is most of the intentionalists seem to have this view of the production of an artwork akin to the Catholic view of sex. There is no sex/writing without the intent to produce a child/convey a message.
In one of the essays I’m reading, Noël Carroll says that if we one day found out that Jonathan swift was an Irish-hating cannibal, we’d probably interpret ‘A Modest Proposal’ differently… Probably true. But the disjunct here is that ‘A Modest Proposal’ is conveying a message, however seriously or humorously. As we were all taught in our freshman lit classes, satire requires a target, and it may not be anything more than a negative message, but Swift is mocking something, even if exactly what the target of the satire is is up for debate. He has a specific message to convey. In this sense, it seems entirely relevant to call on Swift’s intended message to deny anyone who believes he is actually proposing people eat Irish babies, and thus, if it came to light that Swift really was an Irish-hating cannibal, it would throw a whole new light on his justifications for his suggestion. (Caveat peremptor: I haven’t read ‘AMP’ in a very long time… so the specifics may be debatable, but the overall point still stands, I assume)
Much literature, on the other hand, and especially modern and postmodern literature, seems designed specifically to problematize this transferral of intent to ‘meaning.’ Not to mention, it seems to me, that a lot of that very literature is predicated on the desire to write without having anything to say. It’s present from Kafka, but more as general existential anxiety than an explicitly writerly concern, on through the likes of Beckett and to contemporary literature, e.g. Josipovici and Vila-Matas, not to mention Langpo, flarf, and the like, where content is completely unreflective of intent. Oddly enough, this is where intent becomes entirely relevant— you kind of need to know what’s going on when you read a flarf poem, because if you’re looking for intent in the ‘brute text’ itself, you’re going to be sent on all kinds of wild goose chases. The intentionalists I’m reading for this essay, however, seem incapable of conceiving of intent in any way not relevant to Charlotte Temple.
In other words, don’t write if you’re gonna use a condom. Or oulipo. Noël Carroll and the Pope disapprove.