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?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.
• 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