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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Against Theory

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 10/05/08 at 11:24 PM

Hey, did you catch how the title of my previous post was a joke on Steven Knapp & Walter Benn Michaels’s Against Theory? Not much of a joke, but it had a point, in that Kugel’s claim, that a text can have a meaning other than the author’s intention, would seem to go against Knapp and Michael’s. But it also reminded me that I’ve meant to post a question at the Valve for some time now.

What do you folks think about Against Theory? Is it the last word on authorial intention? The first? (that is, the first place anyone wishing to study authorial intention should start?) A necessary word in any discussion? What do we think about this book, more than twenty years down the road?

I read it at the time, and I read all the responses in Critical Inquiry. I didn’t like AT. As a devotee of modernist impersonalism, I was hostile to its conclusion, but I also disliked it for good reasons. Or rather, I didn’t like the way it argued. As in, it certainly considered itself the last word on the subject, which struck me as a ridiculous way to approach something that was obviously complicated. Since when is any word in philosophy (& I always took AT to be claiming philosophical seriousness) the last word? Of course this approach could be rhetorical or even theatrical. I’ve since read enough of Michaels to have a sense that claiming irrefutable positions is his métier. I think if I were smarter or less impressionable I could read through such bluster (not that I don’t recognize that Michaels is much smarter than I am), but it just raises my blood pressure.

UPDATE: Post edited to get the author’s names right. D’oh!


I think John Holbo has written several times here about that argument. It’s an interesting case of disciplinary boundaries: my impression was that, insofar as it was a philosophy of language argument, it was flawed, at least according to philosophers of language. (I have also read an article by Paisley Livingston on intention which makes much the same claim.)

For homework, we should read everyone who works on aesthetic issues that bear on literary interpretation who was not trained in an English or Comp. Lit Department. (This only includes cog. sci and psychology if it is heavily philosophical.) I recommend starting with Lem’s piece on bitic literature.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/06/08 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What? We already discussed this? --I am now my own favorite student, the one who asks what next week’s assignment will be right after I’ve told them what next week’s assignment will be.

As for the homework, I’ve already established that I’m not a good student. But I’ve been hankering to read Art Danto’s After the End of Art.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 10/06/08 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Suppose I have a dream and write the dream down in the form of a sonnet.  On a separate piece of paper I write down the “meaning” of the dream poem that I “intended.” But did I “intend” to have that dream in the first place?  Why is my interpretation of the sonnet better than anyone else’s? Because I was the dreamer?  Because I wrote the dream down and chose the rhymes?  What did I *mean* by rhyming next with text?  Do I even know it myself? 

Suppose I tell a story.  The words in the story mean what I want them to mean, I suppose.  (But somehow I can’t make the word “chair” mean “book” no matter how hard I try!) But does the story, as a whole, mean what I want it to mean?  How the hell is that supposed to work?  I suppose for a very, very simple story that might be possible, but does a 500 page novel have a “meaning”?  A sentence has a meaning, but two sentences put side by side have the meaning of each sentence + someone’s interpretation of the relation between the two.  No author could possibly control all the wayward meanings of the relations between all the sentences in a long text.  Would you even want her to try?  Would she keep track of them in a second document, her intended meanings?  Tell me the AT position is not simply absurd.

By on 10/06/08 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, the essay is by Knapp and Michaels.  Tom Mitchell’s name is on the spine ‘cause he’s the editor.

I’m sorry, Jonathan:  I can’t tell you that.

And Lawrence, regardless of what you intended, the title of that post is a reference to Sontag, not Knapp and Michaels.

By on 10/06/08 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Josh, thanks for the corrections. Really, this is quite embarrassing. Forget I said anything!

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 10/06/08 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, I was very hostile to Knapp and Michaels’s argument when I first read it, and I’ve realized since that their rhetorical stategies led to that effect on me.

I think the essay uses those techniques because what it was criticizing (in part, deconstruction) was so adamant about *never* insisting on anything.  My reaction was itself an effect of that deconstructive or poststructuralist ethos: there is no last word on the subject, it’s all just interpretation, no one argues anymore and instead we just “do readings,” etc.

Regarding the content of the essay, I’ve always found it remarkably like a William James essay: it returns us to the fundamental questions and terms without really “telling” us anything.  But I agree, for the most part, with their take on things.  The meaning of a text is the meaning the author intended.  If we’re not talking about what the author intended, we’re not talking about meaning.  I can’t remember if they ever state this outright, but my inference has always been that there is *more* to a text than its meaning, but that insofar as interpretations are statements of a text’s meaning, interpretations are statements of authorial intention, whether you like it or not.

That is to say, there may be features of a text that aren’t part of its meaning.  A reader’s sense of verbal connotations may affect the reading experience, but they aren’t part of the meaning insofar as they aren’t part of the intention.  Likewise, New Historicism could be viewed as less about intention/meaning/interpretation and more about the range of discourses and meanings available at a time.  An author might not be expressing a certain meaning, but her text might exhibit certain features that connect it to other texts with that meaning.

Ultimately, Knapp and Michaels return us to Husserl’s distinction between expressive versus indicative meanings (a distinction Derrida deconstructs).  All texts have both signs and symptoms.  K and M reserve the term “meaning” for signs.  That seems sane to me, even if it leaves us without a good word for what we’re analyzing when we’re analyzing textual symptoms.

By on 10/06/08 at 07:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I stand with Jonathan here; it seems to me that K and B M simply want rhetoric, discourse, form all not to exist:  a literary text is a historical phenomenon not susceptible to a linguistic reduction....

Stanley Cavell somewhere says, re. the New Critical notion of intention and debates thereon, that what the artist intends is to make a work of art.  Why need she intend a particular meaning?

By on 10/06/08 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Trust the tale, not the teller.”

Once you simply define meaning to mean intention, then all meaning is intentional by definition.  If you narrow the meaning of meaning enough, then you end up with an extremely impoverished category.  And don’t you still need the discipline of literary theory to distinguish between different kinds of meaning? 

Even folk wisdom as exemplified by the proverb above recognizes the limits of intentionality.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/07/08 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But does the story, as a whole, mean what I want it to mean?  How the hell is that supposed to work?  I suppose for a very, very simple story that might be possible, but does a 500 page novel have a “meaning”?

Yes, the idea it could is, to say the least, rather obscure.

It’s all well and good to make an abstract argument to the effect that authorial intention determines the meaning of a text. But without a method for determining that intention independently of the text itself, it’s not clear what use that argument is to the practical critic. There are some very important cases where the text is all we’ve got (e.g. Shakespeare) and there are other cases where we have authorial statements that can be taken as evidendence about intentions (either because they are directly about a given work, or because they bear or matters in a work). In those cases, have appeals to authorial intention settled matters among those who make such appeals?

As for meaning, for all the conceptual use it is asked to perform, it’s awefully nebulous. As far as I can tell, what we’re after when seeking the meaning of a work is some statement or statements that are said to be true of real life and the real world on the authority of the text. The idea that there could only be one such statement strikes me as being either wrong or incoherent (not even wrong).

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/08 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding Jonathan pointing out that Holbo has gone over all this before, here are the relevant links: Near Theory (My creation, is it real?) and Near Theory II (Bits and Pieces).

Per Holbo, it’d seem that there are some pretty serious philosophical weaknesses to the strong version of Knapp & Michaels’s (& they are very keen on the strong version).

John says, “a failed argument isn’t all bad, so long as it teaches.” That would seem to limit <i>Against Theory<>’s importance to being a negative example, that is to say, how some might be inclined to think about the issue, but shouldn’t.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 10/07/08 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill and Jonathan—I think the point for K & M was directed more to the followers of Derrida and Hirsch.  To the former, K & M argued that Theory cannot justify the indeterminacy of meaning.  Meaning is very determined, even if the critic can never be sure s/he’s pinned it down.  To the latter, K & M argued that Theory cannot secure the author’s intention, for all we have to go on is the text.

And that, for me, is the essence of their argument: Theory’s attempt to be a security blanket always fails.  There’s no way to ensure the validity of your interpretation beyond the quality of your argument for what a text means.  No appeals to Theory can provide a foundation. 

So the deconstructive reader cannot simply riff on a word’s Greek origins and claim that the text “means” that; and the intentionist critic cannot point at a diary entry and claim that a poem “means” that; and the reader response critic cannot point to his personal construction of the text and claim the poem “means” that.

By on 10/07/08 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like John Searle’s response in “Literary Theory and its Discontents” to Knapp and Michael’s “Against Theory” essay.  To sum up Searle’s argument, he says “...it seems that Knapp and Michaels make claims that are much too strong.  They claim to have shown that the meaning of a text is entirely determined by the intentions of the author.  But, as we have seen, the meaning of the speech act performed in the production of the text should not be confused with the meaning of the actual sentences that are constitutive of the text.  The sentences have a conventional meaning independent of whatever authorial intentions they may have been uttered with.”

By on 03/05/10 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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