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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
I've been frustrated of late by my mind's capacity to outpace my body, particularly when it comes to writing. I've composed dozens of cool blog entries and a few bitchin' reviews of late, but in each case gave up translating them into words on the screen because I simply don't have the time. But this time I'm going to force myself, even though I will only be able to put down a quarter of the work I did upstairs. For now, in other words, the bones of the torso will have to suffice. Extremities and the flesh to hang on them will have to come later.

In my first class today, we reviewed items that might come up in the short answer portion of the first midterm. Someone mentioned my insistence that students presume, for the purposes of the class, that, "the author did it on purpose." As this was only part of my point, I was pleased when other students clamored to fill in the details. The context for my original statement was the impossible-to-avoid question of whether literary interpretation gets too deep: "Do you really believe the author intended all that?" My response was that "intention" encompasses more than simple pre-meditation. The more training a person has in a particular activity, the more likely it is that she or he will make what appear to be good decisions at a pre-deliberative level, by means of conditioned reflex. When we analyze a work of literature, I explained, we are interested not only in the author's conscious decisions but also the ones that she and he made instinctively, automatically. There is intention behind the latter sort of decision too, but not the sort we are likely to have in mind when a person asks, "Did you mean to do that?"

Revisiting this point today got me thinking. How many of our actions are truly the result of rational deliberation? Not that many, I'd warrant. But when we are asked whether we meant to do something or not, we often take credit for having planned actions that were undertaken reflexively. The story we tell about our actions is one in which our conscious mind seems to have a good deal more control than it actually does. I'd like to ponder this retroactive instantiation of what some philosophers call "strong intention." In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein focuses considerable energy on the explanation of intentions. He is particularly interested in intentions that are formulated after the action they supposedly set in motion, drawing attention to the paradox of providing reasons for behavior that came to pass in the absence of reasoning.

I was going to fish around for Wittgenstein quotes, but have other tasks before me. For now, then, let me state, as simply as possible, the line of inquiry I'd like to pursue:
• If intention is largely a back formation, the product of what Sigmund Freud called Nachträglichkeit, then what does that tell us about the temporality of reason?

• Triangulating this thought with Jane Gallop's superb chapter "Where To Begin? from Reading Lacan, we could isolate the future perfect as the tense-and-aspect best suited for thinking about intention

• That would give intention the same paradoxical temporality as the mirror stage, which marks a beginning that is always already inscribed after the development that it inaugurates

• Since the mirror stage is so important for understanding theories of identity and identification after Lacan, would the recognition of its kinship with intention open up new ways of thinking about the relationship between self and other?

• Parallels of this sort are always extremely risky, but productive precisely to the degree that we risk ourselves in making them

• Perhaps intention is the same sort of necessary fiction as the self, with which it is obviously bound up, since you can't discern intention in the absence of selfhood

• If this were the case, though, it would make for all sorts of complications in the legal arena
In trying to find a new means of explaining my point about thinking more expansively about authorial intention, I used a metaphor from the world of law: "A literary work isn't like first degree murder. Even the most carefully planned text qualifies as manslaughter." If there are degrees of guilt, then there must also be degrees of intention. When you're working with a language that bears the imprint of all its millions of speakers, the author can never be 100% responsible either for what she or he wrote or how that piece is interpreted. What might this mean for the risky parallel between intention and the mirror stage that I outlined above? For one thing, the illusion of control that the baby experiences while being propped up in front of a mirror is analogous to the illusion of control that a believer in strong intention might be invested in. Natural language brings about a loss of control -- not to mention the identity that goes with it -- in keeping with the overwhelming burden of precedent.

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Mode: spiky
Muse: Ralph The Vegetarian Robot - Gary Young - Hospital

5 comments or Leave a comment
amnesiascope From: amnesiascope Date: September 22nd, 2004 01:32 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
If only Jane Gallop understood the class system and the ever-slipping position of academics within it; she might actually come to a meeting of her union rather than maintaining membership purely as an insurance policy against being sued again.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 22nd, 2004 02:22 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've only had positive interactions with her. But I know someone who studied under her, so that gives me entré, I suppose.

But I remember how much it hurt us graduate students on the picket lines at UC Berkeley when outwardly progressive faculty completely ignored us to march past on their way to their offices and classes.

At Berkeley, of course, the faculty weren't unionized and probably never will be, so the rift between graduate students and faculty was exacerbated relative to a campus where faculty have a union of their own.
From: ex_synecdoch550 Date: September 22nd, 2004 11:29 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Heh when people start challening an interpretation of a text because "The author didn't mean to do all that!" I always end up shouting "THE AUTHOR IS DEAD" and then run off.

Just kidding. Sort of. :)

But seriously, though I have not read most of the theorists that you are talking about, I think it is worth pointing out to students who have this issue the idea that what the author intended might not matter so much-- or, at least, it is just as significant to realize that the surrounding environment of the creation of art will influence people in ways that they cannot consciously put into to the text, but do anyway. I'm showing my theoretical strings here, but as Marx wrote (and Greenblatt poignantly quotes):

"Human beings make their own history, yet they do not make it of their own free will, but under directly encountered, given circumstances, which have been handed down to them. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living."

Clearly it isn't just HISTORY (as in the past) that comes into play, but the milieu of the current situation in which the text is produced.

I don't know how applicable this idea is to the rest of your train of thought, but I remember being encountered with this question and when I offered this explanation, and the students seemed to accept it. The other advantage of it is that you can use very concrete examples to illustrate it. For example, television: can we separate television from the infrastructure of television, and all of the considerations that go into (especially American broadcast or major network) television? The social situation may be more abstract and less apparent to the author, but it serves, I think, to illustrate how many things affect the texts we look at that we may take for granted and do not think about.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 30th, 2004 06:04 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Since I'm catching up on a few days of poor commenting on my part, I thought I'd reply to this one too.

I love that quote from the 18th Brumaire!

I guess for the purposes of this particular theoretical inquiry, the constrained free will imagined by Marx would be a nice supplement -- or complement? -- to what I'm trying to get at, however fitfully. Maybe you could argue that "big" free will underpins the conception of intention that I'm calling into question. The pieces don't match up perfectly, but the idea is intriguing.

Thanks for commenting and for your insight!
From: ex_synecdoch550 Date: September 24th, 2004 05:05 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I apologize for jumping on an old post (again) but I thought you might also find this interesting-- it is from Neil Gaiman's blog, responding to students who write to him asking if their interpretations and such are alright. It is interesting to have a fiction author's perspective on the "did the author mean it" question:

And the answer to all of them is honestly, I think you can all write your essays without me. Pretend I'm a dead author. I won't mind. I promise I'll never come to your place of education and say, in the hearing of your teachers, "You do not understand me or my work! Your essay on the solar myth and rebirth in Sandman and American Gods with especial reference to the pagan themes and the use of Pan in the works of Kenneth Grahame was utterly and completely wrong. Hah!" Honest I won't. (Remember, in such essays you don't have to be right. Just convincing.
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