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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

You, Yeah You, You’re Not Doing Anyone Any Favors

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/30/06 at 09:47 PM

Alternate Title: And People Think Our Comment Threads Are Nasty?

They are, at times—we’re working on it, we’re working on it—but they’re never so vicious as what I’ve seen on the political blogs this week.  (Yes, that’s correct, I’ve sunk to reading political blogs in addition to comic books.  But hey, it’s been a rough week, and this is my “Get Out of Jail Free” card.) As I was saying, the debates on political blogs are uncivil in the extreme, the sky is blue, George W. Bush is President and you’re holding up two, no, three fingers.  One of the blogs I stumbled across was Jeff Goldstein’s Protein Wisdom

Needless to say, Jeff and I find ourselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  As an historicist with a fondness for Walter Benn Michaels, I’m an “academic conservative,” a phrase which signifies someone who identifies with the Old Left instead of the New, and with pragmatic, coalitional politics above their symbolic counterparts.  (No, I don’t want to have that conversation again and I can live without rehashing this one too.) My point is that I’m on the “far right” of the far left, which still places me far left-of-center and not likely to agree with Goldstein’s on matters of substance.

However, check out his exchange with “Thersites“ and tell me what you think.  Down there, beneath the overt politics, there’s a discussion not unlike those we’ve had in the past about matters of interpretation and intentionality. 

Goldstein, it seems to me, is the academic left’s nightmare of what Michaelsian thought can produce.  Only the tone of “Thersites” responses; the factual errors he and his hammer in order to discredit Goldstein’s argument; and when they can be bothered to address it, the pish-posh, flip-of-the-hand with which they dismiss intentionalist arguments which do, despite Thersites’ condescension, have some traction in contemporary literary studies—all of it disgusts me.  (Not to mention the profanity which passes for wit over there.  “Fucking clown”?  You’re an English professor, Thersites.  Surely you can muster a more literate, less profane insult.  Maybe even one with some teeth, you know, something mildly cutting.  “Fucking clown” demeans all those who love true insult.)

Note: I’m not claiming solidarity with Goldstein’s politics here.  Only I find the lazy correspondence—between an intentionalist position and Goldstein’s conservative politics—Thersites and his lot consider commonplace inaccurate, offensive and intellectually dishonest.  Where’s the necessary connection?  Where’s the proof of the inherent fascism of the intentionalist stance?  Certainly not here:

Literature is a case in point, indeed THE case in point for, well, literary analysis. JG says he is talking about “interpretation in general, and applying general principles to literary texts as well as any other text.” This is exactly the problem. As I said, this approach “elides the entire history of how literature came to be constitued as a unique social field explicable by the specific rules (descriptive more than prescriptive) that in fact define it.” Literary texts are NOT “any other text."

Intentionalism doesn’t hold because literature is special?  Goldstein “oversimplifies” intentionality?  Is that why Thersites refuted, point-by-point, Goldstein’s defense of intentionalism?  Nevermind, he hasn’t.  What intrigues me about this debate is how neatly it maps onto other non-engagements with the intentionalist argument.  Do I see more at play here than the rest of you?  Am I reading too much into this “exchange”?  I don’t think I am, but I can’t deny the power of an argument which makes mention of my (arguably) concussed logic.  (But if you make that argument, I insist you make that argument instead of dismissing me, outright, as an “academic conservative” or “Old Lefty.")

[Finally, I recognize that some of Goldstein’s commenters are, for lack of a better word, partisan brutes.  Then again, so are some of Thersites’.  It’s the nature of the beast.  That said, some comments are beyond reprehensible, below even the low, low standards of contemporary political discourse.  But Goldstein can no more be held accountable for such speech than John or I can be for, say, The Troll of Sorrow’s.  I know the counterargument: Goldstein’s trolls agree with him, whereas ours insanely and inanely don’t.  Fair enough.  But a troll is a troll is a troll in my book.]


Comments

Goldstein, it seems to me, is the academic left’s nightmare of what Michaelsian thought can produce.

This description makes me quite happy, I must say.

May I borrow it?

By Jeff G on 05/31/06 at 03:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On your final point:  It would be more accurate to say that Jeff’s minions agree with him, but his trolls, like yours, insanely and inanely don’t.  Such is trolldom.

By Karl on 05/31/06 at 04:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

God must have killed a pride of kitten just while watching Thersites and Goldstein and their commenters spew their puke all over themselves and everything around them.

Having followed the links and waded through a couple of posts with hundred-odd comments on either side most of which look like they have been punched out by lobotomised monkeys with amputated fingers having decided to give up on Shakespeare and go the other way, all the way, I emerge shaken, feeling dirty, profoundly unsure as to why anyone would voluntarily participate in that stink-fest in any capacity, and positively bewildered that this is considered to be material relevant to the subject matter of the Valve. Or, as Belle Waring would have put it, WTF?

By on 05/31/06 at 06:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[Comment redacted by the author]

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 08:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

More seriously, that thread created some difficulties for me. I’ve been in exactly Jeff’s position many times when I made non-professional non-specialist statements which were summarily dismissed because my interlocutor’s teachers in graduate school had told them that these ideas are invalid and not worth discussing. I’ve also been told that certain objectionable doctrines of analytic ethics and orthodox economics which I’ve argued against are straw men, simply because my interlocutor’s faction doesn’t hold them.

On the other hand, there’s only a tiny patch of daylight between Goldstein and his worst trolls. He gleefully joined the warblogger faction when they seemed like winners, and he was as venomous as any of them except perhaps the Rottweiler.

My opinion is that left/right dialogue has been impossible since about 1994 (Gingrich), and that we should learn to live with the fact. (I also have come to the conclusion that the American Left died around 1941, with a few zombielike twitches afterwards, and that we’re going to have to learn to live with that too.)

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In fairness to Mr. Goldstein, the comment that you link to seems to have been placed by an agent provocateur, not one of his regular commenters.

By on 05/31/06 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson: “My opinion is that left/right dialogue has been impossible since about 1994”

I agree, but wasn’t Scott’s point that arguments about intentionality should be seperable from politics?

It makes for lousy political analysis, too.  Phrases like “left conservative” are supposed to deride someone like Chomsky’s positions by linking them politically with those like Goldstein’s.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Goldstein has accumulated enough bad karma with his own venomous invective to make the thought of dialogue with him about anything whatsoever extremely unappealing. The fact that I might agree with him more than with Thersites is sort of funny. I do engage in dialogue with three or four center-right people on intellectual issues, but none of them is a polemicist. Goldstein’s problem is his whole persona, not simply his views.

There are two internet Thersites, BTW. The other one is a Brit.

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a remarkably civil discussion of a remarkably uncivil event. If you don’t mind, I’ll visit again (though I’ll virtually never have anything constructive to add). Thanks.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For the record, I’m practicing a topical fascism on this thread.  I don’t particularly care about the petty details of who did what to whom when and from what IP address; I’m more interested in the larger issues, the correspondence, on a theoretical level, of the far right and the Old Left. 

First, because it shatters the myth perpetrated by Thersites that there’s a necessary correspondence between an intentionalist stance and one’s place on the political spectrum.  Second, because I find the structure of the debate strikingly similar, be it between the academic left and the far right or the academic left and what Rich calls “left conservatives” (the Old Left).  The lazy equivalence seems evidence that the academic left lacks some discriminative principle capable of distinguishing Walter Benn Michaels from Rush Limbaugh. 

So Rich is partly right, that I think arguments about intentionality should be separable from politics; however, I’m also interested in why they haven’t been, and why they can’t seem to be.

Anatoly, sorry about making your eyes bleed.  I thought I offered fair warning as to the content of the sites I linked to, and I hope I provided enough context to demonstrate why I think the issue intellectually substantive enough to post about on the Valve.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emrson: “My opinion is that left/right dialogue has been impossible since about 1994”

- I would submit the reasons for this can be found in that fact that at this juncture the differences between the two sides are minimal, and so its like two women fighting over the same baby, ala Solomon.

- That may seem overly simplistic to some, but looking at the goals and agenda’s of both sides pragmatically, you’re hard pressed to define hard opposites. The right spend like sailors, with the “small government” meme religated to the back row, if addressed at all. The Left has no plan because it’s the same as the Right. Class warfare on both sides is the holy graile, fighting for every shred of voter block.

- Every reference or discusion, in this case even obscure intentionalism studies, beget “brown shirt” comments hurled at the right, comical when you consider A.H. was perhaps the greatest National Socialist of all time, and Nanny-stateism’s from the Right toward the left, as they busily carve up the voter block with exactly the same tools and promised payoffs for loyalty.

- The aisle in congress no longer defines ideological difference, as much as intemperate jealousies. They fight contentiously over a non-maybe-possibly war, neither understands, each pitting their own “versions” of history against the other, like the blind men describing an elephant, purely by dent of “feel”. Statesmanship is also a lost art since 1941.

- All of which leaves the poorly informed electorate at the mercy of huckster Pols, million dollar TV spots, and “talking point sound bytes” by pretty faced personalities. Sad situation for the leaders of the free world.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s worth noting too, that just as that reprehensible comment cannot be attributed to Jeff, it cannot be attributed generally to Jeff’s commenters. One anonymous dude’s isolated, crass comment, which nobody defends, should not forever tar Jeff’s largely intelligent and serious commenters as mere minions and partisan brutes.

Again, though you may not agree with “us” politically, there’s no reason not to expect that we cannot be civil toward each other, given a base level of respect for the other’s intellectual seriousness. Ultimately we could discover that we agree on a great deal. Yes, that blog battle was smarmy, though an ugly flame war seemed inevitable once Thersites displayed nothing but contemptuous dismissal of Jeff’s serious work, yet continued to bait him. I obviously don’t think the solution is to ban trolls, generally, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned about choosing debate opponents very carefully. At base, there must be some personal respect, even if the opponent has no respect for your argument. Of course, the superficiality of the Internet makes it hard to truly respect the unknown, anonymous person behind some silly words on a page. Constructive debate, however, requires it.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t go to Jeff’s site often, but my memory is that his characteristic friendly commentator is free with the harsh rhetoric, as is he himself.

BBH, “The Right” is pretty distinct and vivid—it’s the right wing of the Republican Party. They seem to be imploding right now, after realizing that the ideologues among them have been snookered by the grafters.

“The Left”, on the other hand, is used to include moderate democrats, left-liberal democrats, various sorts of ultra-leftists including pure cultural weirdos, and God knows what else. I don’t see the problem as lack of difference from the right, but lack of definition and the absence of an effective politics.

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1) Ask Jeff about the difference between an “intentionalist” and a “radical intentionalist.”

2) Ask Jeff what he believes about the New Historicists.  He’s not a fan.

By on 05/31/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t go to Jeff’s site often, but my memory is that his characteristic friendly commentator is free with the harsh rhetoric, as is he himself.

John, that may well be the case.  I tooled around there for a while and saw that, well, it’s a political blog with a wide readership.  Invective comes with the territory.  Obviously I don’t condone it, but I’m more disappointed when I see it from someone like Thersites than Jeff or his commenters.  That said, I think it’s clear that I’m not interested in participating in that kind of debate. 

1) Ask Jeff about the difference between an “intentionalist” and a “radical intentionalist.”

2) Ask Jeff what he believes about the New Historicists.  He’s not a fan.

geoduck2, he’s more than welcome to point me in the direction of those distinctions or his critique of new historicism.  I’m fairly certain I can anticipate his criticism of new historicism, and as that link indicates, I may be sympathetic with it.  Not because of any political affiliation, but because you don’t have to be on the right to criticize some of those early, thoroughly presentist works of new historicism; an historicist interested in historical accuracy will have many of the same problems with it.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John - agreed

By on 05/31/06 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

You may be interested in a debate on PW in the comment section that explicitly deals with the New Historicism, context and history.  (Look around May 18th.)

It would be from about two weeks ago, when we were actually having a civil debate about this topic. 

You may or may not have found that discussion.

Any substantive discussion ended about a week ago—after the ugly comment about Rosie appeared.

I would be interested in your thoughts about literary theory.  (I’ve read your blog and I enjoy it.) But, most likely, this particular engagement is most likely too far gone to be salvaged.

By on 05/31/06 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

I would be surprised if JG was sympathetic to Walter Benn Michael’s approach.

If he was sympathetic, I would find that quite interesting.

By on 05/31/06 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Am I reading too much into this “exchange”?”
Yes. Here’s where:

“Goldstein, it seems to me, is the academic left’s nightmare of what Michaelsian thought can produce.”

No system of thought produced Goldstein or Goldstein’s version of intebyionakism.

By on 05/31/06 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

geoduck2, his position on race is drawn from Michaels’ Our America.  Granted, he comes to different conclusions as to how such issues should be handled--Michaels thinks class outstrips race in terms of political import, a position I doubt Goldstein shares--but his attack on the mystification of race follows Michaels’ quite closely. 

I wasn’t able to find that exchange, but I’m commenting in between reading student essays, so I haven’t had too much time to look yet.  I’ll look it up later, however.  As for the conversation being unsalvageable, well, I’m an optimist.  More than that, I’m a new face and I’m taking everyone’s positions seriously, so I’m not likely to be branded a partisan of either side--even though, politically, I’m far to Jeff’s left.  Thing is, that shouldn’t matter in this debate, and I’m going to make sure this conversation doesn’t descend into dull and unconstructive partisan bickering.

D.B., I think my answer to geoduck2’s question addresses yours as well.  I have no clue what you mean by “intebyionakism,” but I doubt it likely to contribute to a productive conversation.  It’ll be pruned in the future, but I’m genuinely curious as to what it means.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

I’m glad you will not let this discussion go down the drain.  We were actually having a civil discussion about texts for a short time on PW, before it all went down hill.
---------
You think JG and Michaels have a similar approach to analyzing race? 

I was under the impression that JG does not accept the social, historical, or cultural construction of racial identity. 

If you have time, I would be interested to know what Michaels’ thinks about racial analysis in Our America

Personally, I would layer both class and racial analysis.  Giving one identity primacy over the other is, in general, rather unhelpful when conducting historical analysis.

By on 05/31/06 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Intebyionakism is, I feel, a more appropriate term for the position Goldstein takes on interpretive strategy. “Intentionalism” implies a coherent theory with a history of thought behind it. I realize that the extent to which we privilege “intent” and even the way we define “intent” are up for debate in literary studies, but Goldstein’s ideas on it are not partaking in those debates. Hence, intebyionakism.

By the way, when you write “I find the lazy correspondence—between an intentionalist position and Goldstein’s conservative politics—Thersites and his lot consider commonplace inaccurate, offensive and intellectually dishonest,” I think you’re wrong--I think “"intentionalism"” as Goldstein spells it out is a politically motivated way of reading. To me it signifies a desire to be mastered & led (Foucault’s definition of fascism). But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Feel free to skip the intentionalism debate.  But because it informs a lot of my political thinking—and because there are others here who enjoy it—I don’t think we’ll see an end to it any time soon.

Though I would like to spend more time writing about drug abuse.

Posted by Jeff Goldstein | permalink
on 05/30 at 11:33 AM

By on 05/31/06 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

I just saw your comment at Majikthise. You write:

“This isn’t quite right: “intentionalism” is shorthand not for an interpretive apparatus, but for a particular orientation toward a text, one commonly associated with Walter Benn Michael and Stephen Knapp’s “Against Theory” essays. Because this discussion has, on political blogs, become an occasion for rehashing old political grudges, I’ve attempted to bring the literary issues to the fore on The Valve, a group blog devoted to literary theory. That post contains links to a number of posts in which Michaels and Knapp’s positions have been examined.”

The thing is, for Goldstein, intentionalism is indeed an interpretive apparatus. He’s not following anybody into an intentionalist debate, and merely delights in knocking down school after school of literary theory. You should read his position, which are apparently notes for an undergrad course, here: http://www.proteinwisdom.com/archives/Culture6.pdf
[pdf]

If you’re trying to have a debate about the role of intention or something here, that’s fine, and I’m sorry to keep dragging J Goldstein back into it.

As for myself, the only Walter Benn Michaels I’ve read is “The Interpreter’s Self.” I truly dig it.

By on 05/31/06 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re not quite right, Scott (though perhaps you are right about the currency of intentionalism in theory circles, which would only lower my opinion of literary theory even further). Goldstein’s attitude toward serious criticism has been noxious, condescending, and never on point: see his responses to philosophical critiques of his position <a href=http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2006/05/what_the_hell_i.html>here</a> and <a href=http://decrapulasedormiendo.blogspot.com/2006/05/jeff-goldstein-idiot.html>here</a>.

You seem to assume that an unserious interlocutor is owed serious interlocuting, simply if he holds a position that other serious people have held or do hold. That’s a heap of bullshit. Goldstein has gotten much better than he deserved from both me and Lindsay Beyerstein. I saw what that got us.

[The topical fascist rears his head.  Hope you don’t mind, Nate, but I want to keep this on track.]

By nate charlow on 05/31/06 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Goldstein’s attitude toward serious criticism has been noxious, condescending, and never on point: see his responses to philosophical critiques of his position here and here.”

Are you kidding, Mr. Charlow?  Ms. Beyerstein maybe, but your post is entitled: “Jeff Goldstein: Idiot”

And you are saying Jeff Goldstein “has gotten much better than he deserved” from you?  Try to be serious, as Mr. Kaufman at least seems interested in a serious discussion.

I, for one, would like to see the discussion continue.

By on 05/31/06 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve book marked this blog and will visit again. 

I also have come to the conclusion that the American Left died around 1941..

I don’t think it died, I just think it morphed into the Left/Center of the Republican Party.  It is my opinion that JFK, in thought and deed, was to the right of our current Prez.

I would like to see the Democrats come back.

By on 05/31/06 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nate, I’m afraid I missed the “serious criticism” and “philosophical critique” in your linked post. Rather, I see some insubstantial, high-handed snark culminating in your identifying Jeff’s misattribution of the Mona Lisa to Michaelangelo as a “punchline”, as if it somehow discredits his argument. You then, down in your comments, continue [snip] with the pretension that you’ve discredited intentionalism itself.

[The topical fascist strikes again.]

By on 05/31/06 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nate, DB, you’re misrepresenting Goldstein’s position - whether you know it or not. He’s been perfectly civil to you Nate, moreso than I would if you’d publicly condemned my work as an ‘excrescence’ and then later admitted that you hadn’t actually read it. Both of you need to go ask one of your professors about the significance of the ‘chairs and ladders’ metaphor.

*sorry for the interruption.

By on 05/31/06 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I did not expect any response to the snark, or to the “idiot” comment (which I originally thought would be read only by 10 or so of my closer friends). I’ve acknowledged that the Michaelangelo thing was probably a proofreading error and that it (hopefully!) doesn’t show anything about Jeff’s intelligence. I was just having some fun. The critique in the original post isn’t intended as a substantive critique of intentionalism.

I’m referring instead the blockquoted text in “UPDATE 2” of that post (and the rigorization of that argument <a href=http://decrapulasedormiendo.blogspot.com/2006/05/externalism-and-intentionalism-are.html>here</a>). To these, Goldstein responds with a non-response about ‘infinite semiosis,’ which has literally nothing to do with the charges of vacuity or vicious regress. He’s similarly non-responsive in the thread on Majikthise.

By nate charlow on 05/31/06 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whatever else we have done in this thread, we have witnessed the birth of intebyionakism. I for one prefer it to most of the other available paradigms.

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John - Do the intebyionakists have a snappy sloggin, lots of good talking points, and colorful party buttons and hats?

TW: party21 --- partaaaaayyyyy

By on 05/31/06 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here is the link to my noxious, condescending, and never on point response to the “serious criticism” contained in Nate Charlow’s “Jeff Goldstein: Idiot” post.  I’ll let others decide if my tenor, given the prompt, was as Nate says it was.

And here is Nate’s Update 2:

Here’s a post by Neil Sinhababu (ABD at UT Austin) that, I think, destroys any motivation for intentionalism qua semantic theory (though Neil doesn’t frame it this way). Take a sentence ‘S’ that expresses a proposition P. Externalists about meaning think there is a function from ‘S’ to P that’s determined, inter alia, by the ways in which the constituents of ‘S’ are used by a linguistic community.

Intentionalists deny this,

Help me out here:  are you saying intentionalists deny covention?  Let’s try to be as crystal clear as we can, okay? 

Because what I’m getting from all the S to P to “the ways in which the constituents of ‘S’ are used by a linguistic community” is that convention governs meaning.  Which intentionalists do deny, pointing out that convention is just a convenient way to signal intent, the real ground for meaning.

but what does their proposed substitute for the function from sentence to proposition look like? As best I can tell, it looks like a function which is supposed to take into account what the speaker intended to say when he uttered ‘S’. Let’s denote ‘what the speaker intended to say’ with ‘R’ and the intention with that as its content as I(R) (intentions are propositional attitudes!). So what the speaker meant when he uttered ‘S’ is determined by I(R). R is a propositional content expressed by a sentence Q. How do we get from Q to R, i.e., how do we get from sentence to sentence-meaning?

I’m having a hard time wading through the alphabet soup here, but for me, the way to get from sentence to sentence-meaning is to look at the signifiers and try to reconstruct what I believe the author meant when he signified them by using all the tools at my disposal for doing so (be they convention, or historical situatedness, or intertextual reprises or repetitive intratextual tics, and on and on.

Applying the semantic theory of the intentionalist, we have to look at further intentions. And on and on.

What do you mean? We have to be aware that the reader has intentions, too, but that doesn’t stop us from agreeing that the author has intentions, and if it is those intentions that we are after (as agreed upon when we decide on what intepretion—as opposed to creation or augmentation—is), the only problem we have is the difficulty in reconstructing those intentions, and of course the lack of certainty that we’ve ever reconstructed them perfectly.  Which doesn’t argue that doing both isn’t the proper procedure for interpretation.

The intentionalist’s semantic theory, insofar as he even bothers to offer one at all, is vacuous and leads to vicious regress.

Again, how so?  I responded before to this claim by pointing to Peirce’s unlimited semiosis, always potential, which is constrained, for Peirce, by Habit—and which is constrained, I’ve posited, by those interested in interpreting literary texts by agreeing upon the grounds for how the text can best be described as undergoing a process we’ve called interpretation.

The vacuousness of this I can’t speak to.  But the vicious regress is always only potential, and again should not be used as an excuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I submit that this is why I do not know of any serious philosopher who advocates intentionalism about meaning, since philosophers are, by nature, serious about propositional attitudes.

Well, that may be so—their seriousness about propositional attitudes, I mean.  But the question is, how do they deal with the process of signification in a speech act. That is to say, how do they propose that something is even linguistic without first allowing that it is intended?  It doesn’t matter whether the intention occurs on the author’s end or the reader’s end.  The assertion is that what makes marks language is an intention either to use the marks as such or see them as such.  Which is why intentionalists say that meaning resides in the signification process.

What to do with that information is open to a number of social questions (which I addressed when I addressed Culler’s argument for illimitable contexts).  But beyond that, I’m not getting the point you are trying to make.

Can you put it into more conversational language?

By on 05/31/06 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me pull some of these loose threads together:

geoduck2, here’s the standard quotation from Our America, which I think encapsulates Goldstein’s take on race:

The real question, however, is not which past should count as ours but why any past should count as ours. Virtually all the events and actions that we study did not happen to us and were not done by us. In this sense, the history we study is never our own; it is always the history of people who were in some respects like us and in other respects different. When, however, we claim it as ours, we commit ourselves to the ontology of “the Negro,” to the identity of “we” and “they” and the primacy of race.

This is not to say . . . that all accounts of cultural identity require a racial component, it is only to say that the accounts of cultural identity that do any work require a racial component. For insofar as our culture remains nothing more than what we do and believe, it is impotently descriptive. The fact, in other words, that something belongs to our culture cannot count as a motive for our doing it since, if it does belong to our culture, we already do it and if we don’t do it (if we’ve stopped or haven’t yet started doing it), it doesn’t belong to our culture. (It makes no sense, for example, to claim that we shouldn’t teach Shakespeare because he isn’t part of our culture since to teach him will immediately make him part of our culture, but it also makes no sense to claim that we should teach him because he is part of our culture since, if we stop teaching him, he won’t be any longer.) (128)

The question for Michaels--one which he addresses in his more recent work on class in n+1--is “What now?” Now that he’s demonstrated that race is a powerful but theoretically and biologically fragile concept, what do we do?  Jeff would have us move on; Michaels and I, as I noted elsewhere, would argue for a coalitional politics designed to slowly undermine what we feel is a pernicious and, ultimately, ineffective means of combatting structural racism while at the same time arguing pragmatically for the mobilization of identitarian politics in thhe interest of what we consider social justice.  The difference between Goldstein and Michaels isn’t analytic, then, but political.  Michaels’ text is meant as a theoretical corrective, a way of seeing exactly what we do when we argue from and for an identitarian position.  But he doesn’t endorse the programmatic elimination of identitarian thought from politics, as that’d be sheer utopianism.  It’d be like saying “I know you have this feeling of cultural and/or national unity, but really, it’s not biologically true, so stop feeling it already.” It won’t work.  (Also, lest I seem to be critiquing racial identitarianism too vehemently, let me say Michaels’ argument also applies to cultural nationalism in ways leftist would find quite familiar.  Just name all the conventional complaints about patriotism, then twist it around and consider that Michaels speaks of a kind of “racial patriotism” which is neither more nor less based on imaginary investments than is American patriotism.)

My question is: why is this shibboleth of an argument, one which can take down the sacred cows of the right and left with equal aplomb, continually dismissed as a “conservative” argument?

Nate, your characterization of Goldstein’s comments on Majikthise confuses me, as I think he’s doing an excellent job of presenting Michaels’ argument.  He’s even distancing himself from the conclusions Michaels and I would draw from it, both there and in comments on his site.  Now, you can argue with Michaels’ position, or you can claim that it somehow necessarily leads to Goldstein’s, but that’s a tough row to hoe, since both Michaels and I would point to ourselves and say, “Um, Nate, no.”

Also, it matters little whether I consider Jeff a serious or unserious interlocutor, since I consider interesting an issue larger than both he and I, one which involves entire bodies of thought.  Even if I grant you that he’s an unserious conversant--something I’m not willing to do, since my interaction with him is limited to the past two days, and in that time he’s treated me with respect--that doesn’t change the fact that in literary studies proper structurally similar complaints are made against the Michaelsian position.  (On matters of civility--on why I’m not trusting already dueling parties to adjudicate who I should and/or shouldn’t take seriously--see here and here and here.  I’m going to draw my own conclusions, based on my own interactions, as to who I should and shouldn’t take seriously.  I hope you’ll begrudge me that much.)

D.B., more later, as I don’t have time to read Jeff’s notes right now, and I want to do so before responding to you.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My question is: why is this shibboleth of an argument, one which can take down the sacred cows of the right and left with equal aplomb, continually dismissed as a “conservative” argument?

Perhaps you could define who is framing Michaels as conservative?

By on 05/31/06 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"My question is: why is this shibboleth of an argument, one which can take down the sacred cows of the right and left with equal aplomb, continually dismissed as a “conservative” argument?”

...Could it be that subconsciously any such shibboleth which seems to align with individuality, e.g. pride in race as an individual choice, neccessarily undermines collectivistic goals? Particularly since a shibbolethic tenet rises to a unassailable cannon, once universally accepted.

- An interesting thought experiment is to set a situation of a group of imaginary villages in a make believe country, un-effected by outside influences, who’s inhabitants are a wide mixture of all sorts of “race” or skin colors. Given sufficient, time would the “likes” re-aggrigate, or would the absence of outside “interests” allow the mix to be maintained? The underlying question is: “Are race feelings “real” or a product of sciotal emotions/needs/fears/grouping”, and how would that effect the foregone discussions.

By on 05/31/06 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At my URL I have put a piece where I took David Brooks’ side against Brian Leiter on a very similiar issue (legal questions of responsibility and volantry action.)

By John Emerson on 05/31/06 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can I ask a simple question to those participating in this discussion: 

Do you think it is productive for scholars to analyze the historical construction of race?

Do, for example, Scott Kaufman, Michaels and Goldstein have a different point of view of whether literary analysis that examines race is significant? 

If all of you were on a tenure committee, how would each of you examine the work of a scholar who specialized in the analysis of historical racial construction in literary works? 

(Let’s say the scholar did his dissertation on the nationalism and racial identity of Frederick Douglas, for example.  Let us say that the dissertation also examined the activities of 19th century groups working for the expansion of suffrage and applied this to Douglas and his work.)

(Obviously - an answer to this question will be full of speculation, but it may help flush out some interesting differences or similarities.)

Perhaps if we keep this simple, and focused on literary or historical scholarship (not political activism) we will all know exactly what we are debating.

By on 05/31/06 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

geoduck2, you can get a hint of such a framing here and here, in the response to Szalay and McCann’s work.  (I could also post links to Project Muse and JSTOR, if you’d like, as well as some other conversations later, but I’m too pressed to go link-diving right now.)

Do you think it is productive for scholars to analyze the historical construction of race?

Of course it is.  In large part, that’s what Michaels does in Our America.  But as an historicist, I’d say it’s valuable because historical accuracy’s always something to be valued.  (My entire dissertation’s predicated on that exact premise.) I’m curious:

Why do you think it wouldn’t be?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Look, is there any point having an argument about language with someone who doesn’t even understand the idea of a semantic function? Ah, I guess I’ll try anyway.

Help me out here:  are you saying intentionalists deny covention?  Let’s try to be as crystal clear as we can, okay?

Because what I’m getting from all the S to P to “the ways in which the constituents of ‘S’ are used by a linguistic community” is that convention governs meaning.  Which intentionalists do deny, pointing out that convention is just a convenient way to signal intent, the real ground for meaning.

Yes, Jeff, I was being quite clear. And yet your paraphrasal manages to muddy my point. The semantic externalist holds that the meaning of some term is determined (and not just governed, which is a very imprecise term for an argument that requires some precision) by factors external to the speaker. And, as I said all along, the intentionalist denies this.

By the way, since we’re having a semantic argument, I’m trying to talk in a clear and precise semantic vocaublary. Is it really too much for you to do the same?

I’m having a hard time wading through the alphabet soup here, but for me, the way to get from sentence to sentence-meaning is to look at the signifiers and try to reconstruct what I believe the author meant when he signified them by using all the tools at my disposal for doing so (be they convention, or historical situatedness, or intertextual reprises or repetitive intratextual tics, and on and on.

It’s not alphabet soup. It’s the way people who are trying to be precise about what they’re saying talk. Have you ever stopped and thought about what all this stuff about signification and radical alterity and blahbityblabla looks like to, say, an actual semanticist? Worse than alphabet soup; worse even than word salad; more like insidious garbage (one might even say ‘excrescence’).

Anyway, I know what your proposal for getting from sentence to proposition is. I have been arguing vociferously that it does not work, indeed cannot work, since the criteria for moving from sentence to proposition are:

(1) Useless (they merely substitute one interpretandum for another).
(2) Vicious (your criteria entail that for a sentence to have a meaning, a speaker needs to have an infinite number of intentions at a given point in time). This kind of regress cannot, repeat, cannot be innocuous, since no one person has an infinite number of mental states. Seriously, Jeff, get with the f-ing program.
(3) Semantically unworkable, given a working assumption of semantic externalism (externalism and intentionalism are incompatible, as I argued two days ago).

You are clearly not following the argument. You have yet to respond to any of the points I’ve made.

We have to be aware that the reader has intentions, too, but that doesn’t stop us from agreeing that the author has intentions, and if it is those intentions that we are after (as agreed upon when we decide on what intepretion—as opposed to creation or augmentation—is), the only problem we have is the difficulty in reconstructing those intentions, and of course the lack of certainty that we’ve ever reconstructed them perfectly.  Which doesn’t argue that doing both isn’t the proper procedure for interpretation.

I agree that the author has intentions. Must I repeat myself? Your proposal to use the propositional content of those intentions by themselves to determine the proposition an utterance expresses runs into the three problems I suggested above.

But the question is, how do they deal with the process of signification in a speech act. That is to say, how do they propose that something is even linguistic without first allowing that it is intended? It doesn’t matter whether the intention occurs on the author’s end or the reader’s end.  The assertion is that what makes marks language is an intention either to use the marks as such or see them as such.  Which is why intentionalists say that meaning resides in the signification process.

Are you being serious? That intention is a necessary condition on something having a linguistic meaning is not equivalent to the claim that what is said is entirely a matter of the content of the associated intention, nor does it entail it, nor, as far as I can tell, does the necessary presence of intention in language have anything at all to do (as a matter of logical implication) with the question of what determines meaning. Why do you keep making this error? And what [snip] does it even mean to say that “meaning resides in” so and so?

By nate charlow on 05/31/06 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why do you keep making this error? And what the hell does it even mean to say that “meaning resides in” so and so?”

Charlow - Symbols of every manner are one of the many ways we as a species communicate. The meanings of those symbols are agreed upon by general conventions and mutual consent. Anything beyound that is an affectation of an over active imagination, or the product of some agenda (which can be a useful legitimate use also). Mathematics is also a symbol system, all ment to convey ideas and information. If they aren’t consistant then by rote they’re useless, since those are their reasons for being. [snip]

By on 05/31/06 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nate: Look, is there any point having an argument about language with someone who doesn’t even understand the idea of a semantic function?

Yes, there is.  But the conversation will only be productive if you define the terms you use in a manner that your audience can understand.  (There’s a deep irony at play here, no?) Looking at your profile, I see that you’re only 21 and haven’t attended graduate school yet, so let me say this in a way that I hope doesn’t sound too condescending:

Once you start teaching students, you’ll learn a lot, and quickly, about how to talk to intelligent people who don’t have the exact same intellectual background as you do; or you won’t learn that, “awe” your students with what you’ve learned but communicate precious little of it to them.  Consider your audience here: a group of literary scholars who, while intelligent, may not be familiar with the same material you are.  You can either choose to address us with exaggerated exasperation or you can try to communicate with us.  If you do, you’ll quickly find that this statement you made is less than meaningless:

1. Literary “theory” is bullshit—equal parts smokescreen and intellectual quicksand. Literary “theorists” generally have nothing of consequence to say about language.

Unless, of course, you can define what “literary ‘theory’” is.  Which of the various, incompatible schools of thought which exist under the aegis of “literary theory” is bullshit?  The analytic approach our editor, John Holbo, takes?  The continental approach favored by some of our commenters?  Sean McCann’s historicism or my slightly post-structuralist, quasi-Annales brand of it?  Or is all of this, as well the traditions it borrows from, is all of it bullshit?  I’m getting the impression you’re out of your depth when it comes to literary theory, just as many of the Valve’s readers are out of their depth when it comes to semantics.  We’re more than willing to share our knowledge.  Are you willing to do the same? 

So quit with all the “Are you serious?” and “Must I repeat myself?” alright?  I mean, I could lecture you in faux-hysterical rhetoric about the heresy of paraphrase and your invocation of it, but it wouldn’t really propel the conversation forward, now would it?  So please, repeat what you’ve said in a quiet tone, and in a manner and language that other people are likely to understand.  Thank you.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 05/31/06 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve said my piece (and then some) here and here about why the Knapp and Michaels “Against Theory” line, which Goldstein is defending, just plain fails. It has the virtue of being a clear argument for a clear thesis. As a result, it exhibits the somewhat unusual - but satisfactory - defect of being quite decisively refutable, because there isn’t wiggle room for finessing off the hook. (There are worse arguments in the world that are vague enough that they are a lot more defensible.) It’s not such a bad argument that people deserve to be called ‘fucking idiots’ for thinking this stuff, but it is a decisively refuted view. And not just by me. By Searle and Wilson and others before me.

Goldstein left a comment to his own site in resonse to my posts - because someone mentioned my stuff over there. He writes:

An interesting discussion, and one I hope to revisit when I have more time. But the formulation of Searle’s upon which Holbo’s entire essay hinges: namely, that “one could read while ignoring intention, however odd that would be, whereas Knapp and Michaels deny the possibility” is perhaps wrong (I’d have to see what Knapp and Michaels have to say about this), but is regardless certainly irrelevant to the question of meaning. Clearly, one could read while ignoring intention.

First, Knapp and Michals are indeed very strongly committed to denying the possibility of reading while ignoring intention. E.D. Hirsch takes the line that Goldstein is contemplating here - namely, you could ignore it (but who would want to?) Knapp and Michals Hammer Hirsch severely - and wrongly, in my considered opinion - for admitting this possibility. (Hirsch is wrong about a lot of things, but not on this occasion.)

The real problem with Goldstein’s position is his claim that, if you read while ignoring intention this would be irrelevant to the question of meaning. This flagrantly begs the question. The question is whether there is a distinction between what we might call ‘speaker meaning’ and ‘sentence meaning’ (to pick a likely pair of tags.) Searle and others (including myself) say yes. Knapp and Michaels say no. What Goldstein is doing here is conceding that the distinction may be real but insisting on not calling the second thing ‘meaning’. We’ll do the analytic philosopher thing, then, and humor him by granting that it’s ‘schmeaning’, instead. A related concept. Now we have ‘speaker meaning’ and ‘sentence schmeaning’. Two things, not one. ‘Sentence schmeaning’ refers to the very thing that Searle and others call ‘sentence meaning’. It’s got propositional content and all the good stuff that we associate with ‘meaning’, and ‘meaning’ is the ordinary word for it, so there really doesn’t seem to be any good reason to deny it this title. But if you really really really don’t want to call it ‘meaning’, then fine. Have it your way. It’s ‘schmeaning’.

So Searle (and I) are right that there are two things, not one. And Knapp and Michaels are wrong that there is only one thing, not two. But by restricting ‘meaning’ to only one thing - the intentional thing - Goldstein has written a formula for a merely verbal victory for the Knapp and Michaels side. ‘All meaning is intentional’ has been made a trivial truth that doesn’t really touch the real issue.

Make sense? To put it another way, Goldstein is hitching ‘meaning’ very strictly to a certain sort of intepretative activity. This seems to me a completely arbitrary - and quite confusing - restriction of the use of ‘meaning’.

It seems to me that Goldstein is actually a Hirschian rather than a Knapp and Michaelsian. That seems to me a less bad position - though I would still disagree with it. But to wrap up Hirschianism in this trademark Knapp and Michaels argumentative package, when one of the main points of the package is to refute Hirsch, is pretty confusing as well.

By John Holbo on 05/31/06 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Sentence meaning”, is of course a provable component.

Nuclear Power Plant Handbook entry:

Rule #1: “You can’t put too much water in a nuclear pile cooling chamber”.

- The very fact that its necessary for you to functionally interpret the sentence meaning, aside from its obvious ambiguity, is a proof, regardless of the authors intent. I use this example because there’s no way to avoid making your own interpretation, which would not be possible if the tag “sentence meaning” did not exist as a separate decoding function. whether you make the right interpretation or not is immaterial. (Except of course if you had a dinner date that night.)

By on 05/31/06 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well done, John. JG’s positions never seemed so thought out as they do above.

You write of “"intentionalism"” or intebyionakism (if I may), “This seems to me a completely arbitrary - and quite confusing - restriction of the use of ‘meaning’.”

I think there is method to what appears as “arbitrary” madness, though that method is merely more madness. The reason Goldstein won’t allow that “sententce schmeaning” is meaningful is because he feels “schmeaning” is another text created in the process of interpretation by the reader. This is terribly problematic for him. He seems to feel that we are not authorized to speak of “sentence schmeaning” unless it is an attempt to re-articulate the author’s “sentence meaning.” To me this is a way of saying that we must speak in the voice of the author-master, or be silent.

By on 05/31/06 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott:

You’re right to notice my frustration, though, yes, you are being condescending, unfair, and kinda uncharitable. You’re wrong to assume that I’m flaunting knowledge, or something. One, there’s not a lot to flaunt. Two, I’m deliberately not using any kind of technical apparatus or jargon that a nonphilosopher would find really difficult to understand (if I’m wrong about this, some examples might help; but, seriously, using letters to stand for sentences does not count). Earlier attempts to explain my argument—especially this <a href=http://decrapulasedormiendo.blogspot.com/2006/05/externalism-and-intentionalism-are.html>one</a>, where I was careful to be explicit about everything I was doing—have been ignored, and Jeff still shows no signs of understanding the argument. Worse, he’s been pretending that he does, with the same irritating swagger. I really might be wrong (seriously! I’m pretty new to this language stuff!) but Jeff’s not going to show me why.

You’re also wrong to think that my exasperation is directed at people like John Holbo and yourself. It’s not. Just at Goldstein and his sycophants, many of whom have been abusing mild-mannered (and formerly anonymous) me in his comments and in mine for the past two days. I’ve said some provocative things about literary theory, but really I’m more concerned about the kind of literary theory that masquerades as linguistics, which is b.s. I do really apologize if you or any other theorist here took offense.

Anyway, since John Holbo brought up pragmatics, I hope it’s ok summarize my view on Goldstein thus: either Jeff allows context (including stuff that doesn’t count as intentions) to play a role in determining speaker meaning, or he doesn’t. If he does, intentionalism isn’t a distinctive view. If he doesn’t, then it’s vacuous, vicious, semantically unworkable.

By nate charlow on 05/31/06 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So what you’re saying, Nate, is that you wish to speak in the language of semantics, not in the language of semiotics or semiology.

Is that the gist of it?

Fine. Let’s try your terms. You write:

The semantic externalist holds that the meaning of some term is determined (and not just governed, which is a very imprecise term for an argument that requires some precision) by factors external to the speaker. And, as I said all along, the intentionalist denies this.

Well and good for the semantic externalist to hold this, I suppose.  But I don’t think I’ve muddied your point by paraphrasing it the way I did.  To wit: what you originally phrased “the ways in which the constituents of ‘S’ are used by a linguistic community” is, when all is said and done, nothing more than a “very precise” way of invoking convention.

Here’s why:  You first wrote that the meaning of a term is determined by (not governed by, naturally; we must avoid such non-precise language and speak on your terms, else risk smarmy rejoinders) the ways intepretive communities get from S to P.  All of which, to become “communal” in the first place, (and so the recognizable to an intepretive community), must necessarily be conventional (a shared code).

In your follow up, however (in between taking unnecessary shots at clear idiocy), I note the you have expanded that a bit to say that the “meaning of some term is determined by factors external to the speaker”—which could be anything, presumably, that is, well, external to the speaker.

But since I doubt you are talking about unseen quantum physics or a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, I’m going to aske you to narrow that down for me, if you wouldn’t mind. 

My sense is, you mean something like convention plus historical situatedness plus the contemporary dialogical web plus all the anxiety of influence, etc—those kinds of things.  Which is to say, your argument is that meaning is determined by things other than intention, and that intentionalists deny this.

Which, as I said in my first reply to you is true.

So we’re right back to where we started.  Good.  A fine use of our time.

Secondly, you write:

Have you ever stopped and thought about what all this stuff about signification and radical alterity and blahbityblabla looks like to, say, an actual semanticist? Worse than alphabet soup; worse even than word salad; more like insidious garbage (one might even say ‘excrescence’).

Why it attribute to the generic “one” what you yourself called it.

But of course, I have stopped to consider what this sounds like to people who may be used to a different critical vocabulary, which is why I take the time to explain my terms.  Whereas you seem to want to hide behind yours.

My terms are very simple.  For verbal texts, the signifier is the mark / squiggle.  For that mark / squiggle to become a sign—for it to move from simply being a mark or squiggle that could have been created by accident (twigs fall and spell out “it” on the ground.  Is the try trying to announce itself to an uncaring universe?  Or is the “it” we see not linguistic at all, save for our own intention to see it as language?)—it needs to be signified. That is, a meaning must be added to it through intent, the willful act of some agency.  To keep things simple, we can use Saussure’s two-part sign (signifier + signified), or, since you used interpretandum above, you might feel more comfortable with the tripartite sign of Peirce (signifier + signified + referent).  Either way, it doesn’t change the equation.

Third, you write—and now we’re starting to get to the nut:

I know what your proposal for getting from sentence to proposition is [so that people don’t have to go back and find it, my proposal was that I see signifiers and try to determine, 1) if they are in fact signs, and 2) what those signs mean.] I have been arguing vociferously that it does not work, indeed cannot work, since the criteria for moving from sentence to proposition are:

(1) Useless (they merely substitute one interpretandum for another).

(2) Vicious (your criteria entail that for a sentence to have a meaning, a speaker needs to have an infinite number of intentions at a given point in time). This kind of regress cannot, repeat, cannot be innocuous, since no one person has an infinite number of mental states. Seriously, Jeff, get with the f-ing program.

(3) Semantically unworkable, given a working assumption of semantic externalism (externalism and intentionalism are incompatible, as I argued two days ago).

In an effort to get with the f-ing program, I’m going to take these in order.

You say that one cannot get from sentence to sentence meaning merely by 1) determining if something is language, and 2) having determined that it is, interpreting it by appealing to authorial intent.

Your reasons for this are threefold, none of which, so far, make much sense to me.  You believe it is useless to do so (not sure why that is, sorry).

You believe that I believe that for a sentence to have a meaning, a speaker needs to have an infinite number of intentions at any one time—and that the regress that you believe I believe in “cannot be innocuous, since no one person has an infinite number of mental states.

But I don’t recall proposing such a person, nor do I recall saying that for a sentence to have a meaning, a speaker needs to have an infinite number of intentions at any one time. 

You say my rather simple idea of how I would go from sentence to sentence meaning requires me to believe this.  Why is that, exactly?

Finally, you say that my idea is semantically unworkable, and go on to “prove” this by noting that you don’t believe it to be workable.  Or rather, you say you don’t believe it to be semantically workable from the point of view of “semantic externalism,” which posits that meaning of some term is determined by factors external to the speaker.

Or in short, intentionalism doesn’t work to determine meaning because you say meaning is determined by factors external to the speaker.

Is that about right?  Because if so, we haven’t really gotten very far.

I say meaning is created by intent.  You say meaning is determined by factors external to the speaker. 

Which leads me to ask:  do you see a difference between the creation of meaning (the signifying process) and the determination of meaning by external factors (convention, et al)?

And lastly, in response to my suggestion that:

It doesn’t matter whether the intention occurs on the author’s end or the reader’s end.  The assertion is that what makes marks language is an intention either to use the marks as such or see them as such.  Which is why intentionalists say that meaning resides in the signification process

...you respond with:

Are you being serious? That intention is a necessary condition on something having a linguistic meaning is not equivalent to the claim that what is said is entirely a matter of the content of the associated intention, nor does it entail it, nor, as far as I can tell, does the necessary presence of intention in language have anything at all to do (as a matter of logical implication) with the question of what determines meaning. Why do you keep making this error? And what the hell does it even mean to say that “meaning resides in” so and so?

Of course I’m being serious.

When I say meaning resides in the sign, I mean that until the signifier is signified through the intent of some agency, it is not yet language. But once it is turned into a sign, which happens when some agency provides it with signification, it has meaning.  And the meaning resides in that sign (think of it as a little piece of the author’s intent to mean), which is then sent out into the world.

Derrida talks about the signifier being haunted by the ghost of all its potential signifieds.  But this suggests that it is the signifier we look to to determine meaning.  It isn’t.  We look to the sign (which is why I talked about how changing the font of a novel—changing the signifiers— wouldn’t change the meaning of a text, because what we are interested in are signs).  And so I don’t agree with you when you say, “That intention is a necessary condition on something having a linguistic meaning is not equivalent to the claim that what is said is entirely a matter of the content of the associated intention, nor does it entail it, nor, as far as I can tell, does the necessary presence of intention in language have anything at all to do (as a matter of logical implication) with the question of what determines meaning.”

I am in fact saying that what is said is entirely a matter of the way the sign has been signified.  You say that such a suggesting is “as a matter of logical implication,” wrong.  But you haven’t said how.

Language is not language without the application of intention.  So the necessary presence of intention in language is ALL that is needed to make meaning.  And it also what is needed to determine meaning, even if you fancy yourself doing so by using “externalist semantics,” which, you tell us, relies on factors external to the speaker when determining meaning.  Because all those external factors are—and all that they do—is either point you toward the author’s intent, or else allow you to ignore them and provide your own intent.  In which case, it makes no sense to say you are dealing with the author’s signs—and so with the author’s text.

It may look the same—because the signifiers are all the same—but the moment you give up appealing to the intent of the author, you have ceased to deal with the same text.  And what that means is, the meaning that you say is determined by external factors is really just the meaning you have decided to give to a bunch of signifiers.

If I’m understanding you correctly.

John --

I read your piece very quickly (if you look at the time stamps between when it was pointed out to me and when I responded to it, I reacted very quickly and, as I believe I noted, in a way that may not have done your arguments justice.

I’ll take a look again and what you’ve written and respond when I’m able.

But you did leave out the remainder of my response, which was this, and went to the “why” of how I believe it irrelevant:

An interesting discussion, and one I hope to revisit when I have more time. But the formulation of Searle’s upon which Holbo’s entire essay hinges: namely, that “one could read while ignoring intention, however odd that would be, whereas Knapp and Michaels deny the possibility” is perhaps wrong (I’d have to see what Knapp and Michaels have to say about this), but is regardless certainly irrelevant to the question of meaning. Clearly, one could read while ignoring intention.  But that, in itself, is an act with consequences — and to make what one is “reading” in such a way back into language at that point (that is, to intepret it), one must necessarily resignify, even if that resignification is to empty the signifier of any signified and refuse to “mean” anything other than “I refuse to allow this to mean.”

So I don’t think I’m saying “sentence meaning” doesn’t mean necessarily; but rather that for it to mean in any meaningful sense it has to first become speaker meaning again, because all those things you mention—“propositional content and all the good stuff we with associate with ‘meaning’—are nothing until they are seen through the prism of agency, either on the authorial end or the interpreter’s end. Is this a distinction without a difference?

If I’m understanding you correctly, sentence meaning would be recognizable as language to most speakers of a given language and as such would look to have propositional content, etc, even though we can’t be sure it is produced by some agency.  But at this point, to say it has meaning you’d simply be asserting that it can be interpreted purely by convention thanks to its remarkable resemblance to language—which is just another way of saying that things that look like language can be interpreted as language, and for this reason alone have become language.

But that processs is simply an example of group consensus forming over some unusually linguistic-looking accident.  What I would say is happening is that you have turned it into speaker language and told yourself that you have “found” meaning in something that only means because you intended to see it as meaningful.

Again, I haven’t read your piece closely enough, so I probably shouldn’t be venturing too far afield here.  So where am I going wrong?

By on 05/31/06 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeff, instead of blowing up at you again, I’m going back to my blog, stoic in my awareness that some people are philosophers and some people aren’t. Maybe I’ll post something about your response in the next day or two. Hopefully it will be more relaxed. The last couple days have been a bit much for me.

-Nate

By nate charlow on 05/31/06 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeff, owing to the fact this is not my field of discipline, I appreciate your patience and that of John and Scott as well. As a Physicist, I was taught from a basis of “sytemological” analysis, coupled with the notion of modeling. Reading your explanation it occurs to me that overlaying both approaches, is the idea of a hierarchy of “understood” and “generally agreed to” semantic/language/interpretation, more or less rich or not to the extent of the “receivers” situational experience (and all that may cover). What I hear you saying is the Author has “intent”, quite aside from, and not dependent on, the proficiency of the receiver to divine that intent. Ok.

- But I see two things in that premise. One, assuming the intent of the author, regardless of its decoding workability, exists, comes dangerously close, not to make light of it, as the tree falling in the empty forest conundrum. Its an arguable position with a so what answer. No information has been communicated, so intent falls to irrelevance.

- Secondly it would appear that both you and John are simply coming at the problem from different directions, and multiple models of the same process can be perfectly acceptable. So I don’t see the disagreement really.

By on 05/31/06 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nate writes:

I hope it’s ok summarize my view on Goldstein thus: either Jeff allows context (including stuff that doesn’t count as intentions) to play a role in determining speaker meaning, or he doesn’t. If he does, intentionalism isn’t a distinctive view. If he doesn’t, then it’s vacuous, vicious, semantically unworkable.

I do allow that context, including stuff that doesn’t count as intention, plays a role in assessing / interpreting speaker meaning.  Determining it?  Not so much. 

But I have never claimed intentionalism is a “distinctive view.” In fact, I’ve argued the opposite:  that it is the default view.

As to your last comment, well, being a philosopher can be exasperating, I imagine.  Keep on truckin’, li’l buckaroo!

DB writes:

I think there is method to what appears as “arbitrary” madness, though that method is merely more madness. The reason Goldstein won’t allow that “sententce schmeaning” is meaningful is because he feels “schmeaning” is another text created in the process of interpretation by the reader. This is terribly problematic for him. He seems to feel that we are not authorized to speak of “sentence schmeaning” unless it is an attempt to re-articulate the author’s “sentence meaning.” To me this is a way of saying that we must speak in the voice of the author-master, or be silent.

Such a different tone than the one that you’ve been taking with me elsewhere, D.B.—though I don’t blame you for wanting to make a good impression on such a serious forum, and I do note that you managed to suggest, yet again, that I’m “mad.” Which makes me feel like one of those B movies scientists who overreach and wind up with the head of a fly on the body of Jeff Goldblum.

But to the substance of your comment.  You begin well enough ("Goldstein won’t allow that “sententce schmeaning” is meaningful is because he feels “schmeaning” is another text created in the process of interpretation by the reader"), which is true.  That is precisely what I believe.  But then you overreach when you suggest this is “terribly problematic” for me.  Because it is not problematic at all, from my perspective It simply is.

From there, though, you go off the rails entirely.  You write that I seem “to feel that we are not authorized to speak of ‘sentence schmeaning’ unless it is an attempt to re-articulate the author’s “’sentence meaning.’ To me this is a way of saying that we must speak in the voice of the author-master, or be silent.”

But who said anything about authorizing you to do anything?  I have simply said that when you claim to be interpreting (as opposed to the myriad other things you can do with a text), you should be attempting to reconstruct the author’s intent.

To you, “this is a way of saying that we must speak in the voice of the author-master, or be silent.” But that’s your hang up.  For me, there is no “author-master” here (though to be fair, the author did do the work of creating the text for you, so showing a little gratitude is hardly out of line), just somebody trying to convey meaning.  And to interpret is an attempt to reconstruct that meaning.  Think of it as a courtesy.

Which doesn’t mean you have to do so if you don’t wish—after all, not everyone is courteous—just that if you don’t, you aren’t interpreting so much as you are augmenting and/or rewriting a text.  And this makes it a different text.

I have said on numerous occasions now (most recently in my response to Nate on my site), that

saying a literary text has a single meaning and that the meaning belongs to its author is not as mind-bogglingly “radical” as [people like you seem] to imagine.  For instance, that assertion does not say that other people can’t draw different meanings from the text, or that the meanings they draw can’t be even more interesting in many ways than the author’s original signification.

It simply points out, from the perspective of how both meaning-making and interpretation actually work, that doing so is itself an intentional act, and that when one does not appeal back to authorial intent, one has ceased interpreting and commenced writing his or her own text, which is what happens when we add our own signifieds to signifiers that have been emptied of any previous signification.

So you see, I’m not trying to silence you at all. Rather, I’m trying to describe what it is we do with texts based on how we think they work.

By on 05/31/06 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

BBH --

It’s not an arguable position that the author’s intent exists.  It’s a fact of signification.  And it will become a “so what” observation only when it becomes commonly accepted as the ground for originary meaning when our goal is to interpret.

Of course, the “author” can also be the receiver of a message who has decided to disregard the originary intent of the agency that signified in the first place.  But if that’s the case, we should be clear about whose meaning we are dealing with under those circumstances.  Problems arise when an interpreter’s meaning, derived with a total disregard for authorial intent, is then attributed to the original author, whose text has been ignored, but whose signifiers are now being used to suggest s/he “meant” something other than s/he did.

See the Tony Snow / Bill Bennett / swirly cone of Allah / Flight 93 Memorial discussions for additional thoughts on this point.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeff, my original posts are extremely long, so whether you want to go back to study them is quite up to you. I do think that they show that the thing you are concerned to add, in your own defense, doesn’t make a difference. You write:

“But that, in itself, is an act with consequences — and to make what one is “reading” in such a way back into language at that point (that is, to intepret it) ...”

‘That’, in this case, refers to the decision to read in an intentionless way. The problem is that the question of whether it has consequences - I will cheerfully grant it does - is irrelevant to the question of whether the Knapp and Michaels position you are defending is a sound one.

In my long post I basically lay out different senses of ‘intention’ and point out how the Knapp and Michaels argument may scrape strictly unearned plausibility from irrelevant senses. There is always tons of intentionality involved in these sorts of cases. That can make it seem like an easy win for intentionalism. But it’s all the wrong sort, for purposes of winning the argument. I’m not going to try to rehearse that argument here because it’s basically an argument by cases, and there are lots of cases, and you’ve just got to go through them all.

But I will say this. One thing you imply here - which Knapp and Michaels say as well - is that in the absence of intention, these funny squiggly things or soundy bits floating through the air ‘aren’t language’ until they get ‘made back into it’ by some process of investing them with intention. Until that investment takes place, they only resemble language. (At one point, Michaels actually says ‘seem to resemble language’, if I recall.) The Wordsworth on the beach. It isn’t words at all. It’s only word-resembling shapes, if there is no intention. This seems to me to get us another version of the meaning/schmeaning point. As Wittgenstein writes somewhere or other: one of the main criteria of something’s being language is ‘looking like language’. That is, the shape is enough. If you want to deny that it’s ‘language’, unless it’s backed by intentions, I guess we could call it ‘schmlanguage’ or something. But since ‘schlanguage’ now refers to cases of what ordinary folks call ‘language’ - just as ‘schmeaning’ refers to cases of what ordinary folks call ‘meaning’ - this determination to not use ‘language’ in a perfectly ordinary way seems like an evasion that doesn’t actually help your argument.

This was the point of my mad lib argument in the long post. Knapp and Michaels are committed to saying that the weird thing I produced isn’t even language - even though I made it by punching holes in a thing that was made of language, and asking my wife to give me more bits of language to fill the gaps. So clearly it’s language. Therefore, Knapp and Michaels are mistaken.

Anyway, I think if you want to pursue the question, the only way to do it is by arguing cases concerning different senses of the word ‘intention’.

By John Holbo on 05/31/06 at 11:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, John.  I’ll read through your argument and put together a proper reply when I have a bit more time.

Quickly, though, I don’t think, with Wittgenstein, the shape is enough to signal language, because while similarities in shape can lead to a conventional acceptance of something like language, it doesn’t take into account the specificity of use which is language’s goal—which is to say, such a conception of language doesn’t take into account how you or I or any individual uses it to mean, which can defy convention.

Certainly, the fact that something looks like language is enough to make us think of it that way—and “ordinary” folks might even see it as such (though perhaps I should point out that conventional wisdom is not always the best kind of wisdom)—but whether or not it is or not is a different question.  And what makes it such (or not) is an important point for debate.

I appreciate the response and I will revisit this.  I’ve promised Scott I’ll read Michael’s Shape of the Signifier soon, as well.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The question for Michaels--one which he addresses in his more recent work on class in n+1--is “What now?” Now that he’s demonstrated that race is a powerful but theoretically and biologically fragile concept, what do we do?

I believe that race is a unstable concept.  However, I do not understand the concept of race being fagile. 

I have not read Michaels - does this statement mean that he believes race as a category is unstable over place and time? 

Jeff would have us move on; Michaels and I, as I noted elsewhere, would argue for a coalitional politics designed to slowly undermine what we feel is a pernicious and, ultimately, ineffective means of combatting structural racism while at the same time arguing pragmatically for the mobilization of identitarian politics in thhe interest of what we consider social justice.

I also don’t understand what this sentence means.  By “moving on” does that mean that we should not teach about the history of race or produce other scholarship that discusses race in literature? 

Or is this sentence talking about a criticism of, say the NAACP by literary critics?

Perhaps the above question is not relevant to the discussion, in which case please ignore.

It did however make me think of a lecture by a feminist scholar from Duke who declared that “gender” as a category was not irrelevant and essentialist.  My response was - well, that’s nice and all, but gender is relevant as long as people look at other people and see a gender.

------------------
RE: on studying the construction of race.

Michaels does in Our America.  But as an historicist, I’d say it’s valuable because historical accuracy’s always something to be valued.  (My entire dissertation’s predicated on that exact premise.) I’m curious:

Why do you think it wouldn’t be?

Oh - I think it’s critically important.  I study 19th c. slavery and citizenship rights. 

But I got the (perhaps mistaken?) impression that Jeff did not approve of scholarship that utilized a historical construction of race after reading the section of his notes that discussed race. 

Again, if this is not germaine or helpful for the conversation, please ignore.

I definitely have to read Michaels!

By on 05/31/06 at 11:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

-As a regular at your site Jeff, I’m familiar with those references and I see the applicable significance. So the author becomes the total “agent”, both author and receiver, sans the necessity of any outside communication, and the model is intact. Which takes you back into the mind of the author, and a completely different level of the process of signification, which is a rich area of inquiry, thinking about thought and cranial signifiers, but at which point I think I’ll stop, since a question posed to us by one of my profs haunts me to this day.

Prof. Collins: “When you think about something, how do you imagine it, the process?

fem student: Oh that’s easy. I just think of everything I think about projected on a big movie screen!

Prof. Collins: Ahhh....I see....and Who is watching the movie?

silence.

- I had just been introduced to the notion of the homunculus anomaly.

Thanks again for your patience. Now its time for a relaxing hot Barcardi purple label.

By on 05/31/06 at 11:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Such a different tone than the one that you’ve been taking with me elsewhere, D.B. Jeff: likewise.

I’m trying to describe what it is we do with texts based on how we think they work. No you’re not. You’re trying to prescribe a style of interpretation. Why back off from your prescriptions? This (from your notes pp. 5-6) is entirely prescriptive:

The final claims for “interpretation” the course will make are these: there is one “meaning” to a text—"text" here conceived of as a speech act, an act of communication(7); that a text’s one “meaning” is the author’s meaning; that our project of interpreting such speech acts should be to approximate, as closely as possible, the author’s intended meaning.

“Creating another text” or “interpreting” and leaving it at that would be a problem for you because it’s not ultimately what we’re supposed to be doing (out of courtesy, natch). By your logic, your “intentionalism” is so radical that even to summarize, paraphrase, or represent a text (versions of sentence schmeaning) would be doing the text an injustice since these are forms of re-encoding. This is what I take to be an injunction to the reader to speak in the author’s voice, or be silent.

To me this signals that you conceive meaning as an essence owned by the author (or as you say, “meaning belongs to its author)”, which I suppose we “borrow” while we read (is this why we owe her gratitude?), and which can only be repeated by the reader if we are to refrain from doing ontological violence to the text. I submit this as the hypothetical ideal “intentionalist” reading situation. I realize you allow for people to interpret texts as they like, but I think it’s with this ideal and governing principle in mind that you allow the reader such freedom.

I’m not trying to turn your argument into a cartoon--I write this in good faith with respect to the 41 pages of notes you posted online. That said, this is not a “description” of what we do when we read. This is absurd.

Then, as you go on to tear down the “kernel” claims of contemporary theory:

[A]ll interpretation is based upon authorial intention—whether or not the particular methodology seeking to explain interpretive maneuvers thinks it is basing its claims on intentionalist premises. That is, given the number of “schools” of interpretation that make the claim for the exclusion or irrelevance of authorial intention, it is important, I believe, to note that each of these schools of thought has already (albeit it inadvertently) embraced the idea of authorial intention as foundational for its subsequent interpretive claims

If I read you correctly, your idea is that even schools that explicitly reject authorial intention as a basis for making meaning secretly rely on “intentionalist” notions, and this is because they assume that they’re interpreting texts, which, you claim to have shown, are by definition intentionally created. By your logic: if you’re reading a text, you are (even if inadvertantly) an intentionalist. This is truly magical.

I personally like to think of meaning-as-flow which isn’t owned by anyone (author, reader, text) but which moves as we interact with texts in the manner of D&G’s desiring machines. Charles Bernstein in this fashion calls for a “criticism of desire: sowing, not reaping.”

By on 06/01/06 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scattered thoughts:

I claimed above that meaning is not an essence but a flow. This is admittedly somewhat radical, but nevertheless has no bearing on whether “intentionalism” is flawed.

It occurs to me that “meaning,” even as an essence as you conceive it, Jeff, cannot be owned, neither by an author nor by anyone else.  This is because language isn’t owned. This is to say that a literary “speech act” (parole) is entirely dependeny upon language (langue). Langue is public, shared, and has no origin. Since “intent” is conveyed in language (as you insist) it seems to me that the “meaning” of a literary speech act is necessarily located beyond the author. You seem to think that calling a text a “speech act” autmatically means that you get to think of a text as originating with one discrete, authorial subject who owns the text’s meaning, yet speech act though a text may be, it remains entirely dependent upon a larger, shared public system. You address Saussaure in your notes (pp.2, 3, 18, & 19) but never on this point; you state merely that Derrida has misrepresented (!) his thinking about signs. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this fundamental insight of Saussure at the very least problematizes where we can even locate authorial intent.

This whole debate, I notice, has been conducted at a theoretical level. I continue to wonder happens to “intentionalism” when confronted with, say, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or dada poetry, Tender Buttons, Finnegans Wake, Ionesco’s “ANGEPAIN,” lyric poetry, or the hundreds of less experimental texts that obviate our attempts to reconstruct their (or their authors’) meanings. I feel we can all agree that each of these modes of literary discourse has different, even competing notions of the meaning of its own “meaning.” Why do we need “intentionalism” to make a universal claim about what all literary meaning aspires to?

I asked this question elsewhere and you responded, Jeff, in this way:

The one meaning of the Browning poem is in the signs, put there at the moment of their signification.  How do I know this?  Because before then, Browning hadn’t done anything linguistic.  It is your job to suss that meaning out.  To help, you can use many things, from form to historical situatedness to intertextual similarities to narratology to biographical knowledge about Browning to his own letters and marginalia, etc.

And because each sign can be intended in such a way that it can carry several meanings—the simplest example of this for people like you to grasp, as I’ve noted on several occasions, is to think of intended irony—there is no problem at all with concluding that the meaning of the text is ambiguous.  There is no mandate that all words have single, literal meanings. Just that a word is not a word until it is imbued with meaning.

So: when confronted with an actual text, “intentionalism” reverts to an ideal that may be serviced equally well by any critical approach including narratology, etc. (does this include deconstruction? psychoanalysis?). Nevertheless, I remain suspicious of your assertion that the absolute meaning of a poem is “the signs, put there at the moment of their signification.” You want transcendent signified truth in a contingent historical moment, which I’m not satisfied is as unproblematic or un-paradoxical as you suggest in your notes. You write, on p.1: A belief in the contingency of truth is the same, in fact, as a belief in the transcendence of truth.

To me, there is no other response to this than, HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

By on 06/01/06 at 03:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A minor side note.  As a great admirer of Michaels who is currently agnostic/unconvinced by “Against Theory,” I’d just like to add that, in my view, though he suggests otherwise, the things Michaels says in _Our America_ and most of _The Shape of the Signifier_ don’t hinge on his account of meaning-as-intention.  Among other things, he makes a connection between a radically subjectivist view of meaning and an overindulgent fascination with cultural difference.  If I understand correctly, though, an externalist account of meaning could fit equally well with that argument.

By on 06/01/06 at 08:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, forgive me for being dense, but does sentence schmeaning really have propositional content?  and is it actually possible to refer to sentence meaning as opposed to meanings?  and if not, isn’t that a problem?

Take BBH’s example: “You can’t put too much water in a nuclear pile cooling chamber.” What’s the schmeaning of that sentence?  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have one, but the possibility for at least two, so that determining meaning will require making reference to some other factors.  Nate says, context.  That seems fine, but I densely am not seeing why at least the first two of his criticisms of JG wouldn’t apply to that view as well.

To put the question another way, obviously, it’s possible to “read in an intentionless way” in the sense of being able to recognize sentences and to distinguish them from non-sentences.  But it’s not striking me as obvious that what you get in that process is meaning.

By on 06/01/06 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I don’t have time for a full reply right now to the ‘does it have propositional content’ question. The form of my answer would be: it’s certainly no MORE puzzling that sentences should have meanings, i.e. propositional contents, than that intentions should have them. But sentences are ambiguous and context dependent! Yes, but intentions are pretty cloudy themselves.

To get around this, I focused on chess notation in my dialogue, if you recall: Nd5 means ‘knight to d5’. That’s a context-dependent statement because you need to see the board to know which knight. But the meaning of the sentence is completely determinate, and you don’t have to know anything about the intentions of the speaker. But don’t you have to know they intend to make a chess move? Actually, no. You just need to know that it is written in algebraic chess notation. (Knowing that they intend to make a move might TELL you that, but that’s a different case.) All you need to defeat the Knapp and Michaels argument is for there to be SOME cases like this. If other cases are more doubtful, well we can argue about that after we’ve laid the Knapp and Michaels argument to rest. Take ‘you can’t put too much water in a nuclear pile cooling chamber.’ I take that to have a pretty clear and unambiguous sentence meaning, actually. The joke is that it isn’t the intended meaning. The sentence cannot be LITERALLY construed as saying the thing we know it was supposed to say. (There’s a sign on the door to this bar near here: ‘dresscode required.’ Funny.)

The thing about sentence meaning is that it’s a compositional function of sentence parts. Think about German class. They don’t teach you special techniques for guessing what German people are thinking, which you then superimpose on their funny sentences. They teach you about a whole bunch of parts. And rules for how their combinations produce ... propositions. And so you figure out what sentences mean. Then that is a pretty good leg up on what the Germans themselves have in mind. There is still a great deal of guessing what people are thinking when it comes working with the sentences. There’s give and take and context and all. That’s natural language for you. But Knapp and Michaels are really committed to denying the first part, where sentence meaning is a function of the meaning of littler bits of language. (Of course that’s absurd. They must be aware that German 101 is not a ‘guess what German people are thinking class’. But strictly they are way too committed to claiming that by their thesis.)

You may also be getting hung up on the ‘but aboutness is always a function of intentionality’ point, where ‘intentionality’ is just a synonym for ‘aboutness’. The short reply is this: when people deny the intentionalism thesis, they are not denying that intentionality in necessary in THAT sense. Intentionalism says more than just: meaning is a function of things being ABOUT things.

By John Holbo on 06/01/06 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve stayed out of this because in this (as in many other things) I am not even an egg.  However, I wouldn’t mind learning something.  With that in mind, then:

What’s “shmeaning”, and does “intebyionakism” mean anything to anyone other than John Emerson?

It’d be nice to have a glossary, or perhaps a guide to all of the inside jokes that I’m completely missing.

Outside of that, I’ve got nothing, other than gratitude that a) there can in fact be civil, discussion of this topic that even (!) includes dissent, and b) because of this discussion, some aspects of this topic are beginning to make sense to me.

By on 06/01/06 at 10:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"You want transcendent signified truth in a contingent historical moment, which I’m not satisfied is as unproblematic or un-paradoxical as you suggest in your notes”

D.B. - This may be a simple matter of semantics, but in this section of the debate I hear you both arguing buicks and oranges when you bring “truth” into things, versus “fact”. Truth needs must cover “opinions”. Facts are always true, because they have been observed; (I stub my toe, I drink some water, I watch you cross the street), truth is not a fact until its observed (leaving aside the esoteric falling tree in the empty forest meme). Truth can be he said/he said, and remain unproven, which may or may not bear on this discussion, but certainly must be given more than short shrift in the interest of completeness.

By on 06/01/06 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sometimes a cigar is only a phallic symbol.

By Alan Kellogg on 06/01/06 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hesitate to enter this conversation as I am an historian—with the standard intellectual strengths and shortcomings of the breed—and thus am tramping on foreign soil here.  But here goes…

Two unrelated questions:

1) I haven’t read “Against Theory.” Assuming (since no one denies it) that Michaels and Knapp’s position is as John Holbo describes it, the language=intention position seems ludicrous to me.  Nevertheless, I’m a pretty big fan of the stuff I’ve read by Michaels (largely the essays in The Gold Standard and the recent n+1 piece on class and American higher ed, though I’m sure I’ve read a few other essays here and there). So let me reask something that Sean McCann asks above: do Michaels’ essays such as the n+1 piece (which is freshest in my mind) necessarily entail his theory of meaning? if so how? (or to ask this another way, am I, in admiring Michaels work but rejecting his theory of meaning, engaging in incredibly sloppy thinking? it wouldn’t be the first time, I’m sure).

2) Scott, would you clarify your use of the term “Old Left” to describe yourself?  From other posts, I take it you mean to indicate that you are: a) very much left of center; but b) very opposed to the New Left. “Old Left” captures this insofar as it suggests a position to the left that is logically opposed to the New Left. But to me the term Old Left refers to the constellation of Marxist ideologies that was most prominent in the 1930s, e.g. Stalinism, Troskyism, Lovestonism, etc. etc.  Is this what you mean?  My sense is that this is not quite what your politics are, but I could be wrong.

By on 06/01/06 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, sorry to make you do the heavy lifting, as I know you’re swamped now. 

Slartibartfast, I’m still unclear what “intebyionakism” means outside of what D.B. considers Goldstein’s reductive version of the intentional position.  “Schmeaning,” I think, is John’s playing with Michaels’ discussion of “Schmenglish” in The Shape of the Signifier.

Sean, time-permitting, I’d really like to hear you expand on this.  I took Michaels at his word (SotS 10-11) and have been playing with the implications of that in this post (as well as generally, in my head). 

geoduck2, I can’t speak for Jeff, and you’re probably more familiar with his position than I am.  I’ll say that there’s no way I think we ought to just “move on,” whatever that entails, because I’ve a commitment to historicism which prevents me from doing so.  (Also, I’ll answer your other questions a little later, as I, too, am a little pressed for time.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/01/06 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Scott.  As some one who has a similar commitment to historicism—I dig it.

It sounds like you’re not only grading papers, but also, quite literally, got hit by a car.  I hope you feel better, and don’t worry about having time to reply.

DB,

I really appreciated this statement of yours:

This whole debate, I notice, has been conducted at a theoretical level. I continue to wonder happens to “intentionalism” when confronted with, say, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or dada poetry, Tender Buttons, Finnegans Wake, Ionesco’s “ANGEPAIN,” lyric poetry, or the hundreds of less experimental texts that obviate our attempts to reconstruct their (or their authors’) meanings. I feel we can all agree that each of these modes of literary discourse has different, even competing notions of the meaning of its own “meaning.” Why do we need “intentionalism” to make a universal claim about what all literary meaning aspires to?

I think the language poets, in particular, underline this point.  Ironically, wasn’t that rather the point or the “authorial intent” of the language poets? 

Postmodern poetry, postmodern fiction, ect...I wonder how people would apply “intentionalism” to these art forms.

By on 06/01/06 at 03:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t speak for Scott, but the “Old Left” within the context of literary studies has a far different meaning.  Chomsky, for instance, who is tangentially involved in some questions of literary theory, is sometimes referred to as an Old Leftist, and he’s a libertarian socialist / anarcho-communist.  Sokal took a particurly distinctive Old Leftist swipe at some literary theories.  I quote from the linked text:

“But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be ``true’’, why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don’t aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.3)

But my main concern isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist / poststructuralist / social-constructivist discourse—and more generally a penchant for subjectivism—which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left.”

By on 06/01/06 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott and Ben, I’m obviously not very sophisticated about this stuff, but I think theoretically it’s not hard to separate Michaels’s theory of language from his politics or his literary history.  (Though, I have to admit, I don’t ahve SoS on hand and read it some time ago.) The connection he draws is more or less the inverse of DB’s.  If we don’t read for intention, meaning is just a product of our subjective experience--in fact, it’s not meaning any more it’s only experience, with the ultimate upshot being Bush style po-mo.  But the sheer fact that Searle and Holbo are not the same as Butler or Rorty suggests that, at least for them, this isn’t the case.  That the meaning of a sentence is not necessarily identitical to a speaker’s intention doesn’t mean it can mean anything. 

(btw, Ben, I loved your Totalitarianism book.)

John, I knew you were gonna come back with that chess example.  I think I know what Michaels and Knapp would say in response--that someone has to intend for the language to be chess notation and so to read the sentence we have to presume an agent that has intentions even if it’s just ourselves.  I think I see how in this particular case that objection doesn’t have force since if we stipulate that a computer randomly generates combinations in chess notation, the sentences will be meaningful and there won’t be an intention generating them. 

I suppose I am getting hung up on the aboutness problem, even though I see the problem and how it’s misled JG, and what I’m guessing will seem like misguided psychologism.  Still, it seems so counter-intuitive in some ways to speak of intentionless reading that it’s hard not get so hung up.  I actually think in German 102 at least, you are being taught to read for states of mind, and it’s hard not to think that to read in natural language for linguistic meaning, you need to make reference both to public codes and to presumed intentions.  I’m being dense I suppose, but since in ordinary usage “can’t” can mean at least “unable” and “shouldn’t,” I think I can see at least two sentence meanings to bbh’s example and at least three possible intended meanings.

By on 06/01/06 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Rich.  I obviously don’t know the lay of the land in literary studies viz “Old Left,” but I do know Sokal—both his politics and his famous intervention in literary debates—and he does not use the term “Old Left” in a far different way from me.  For him it refers, broadly speaking, to some of the important traditional commitments of Marxism, i.e. materialism, a central concern with class (esp. the working class, as seen in this quotation), and so forth.  Which is not to say that Sokal fits easily into a 1930s box, but merely that to the extent that “old” has a historical referent in Sokal’s use of “Old Left” it might well be the same referent I suggested.

Chomsky seems to me a more interesting case.  I have always thought of him as part of the New Left, though I think I use that term a bit more capaciously and sympathetically than, say, Scott does.  Chomsky certainly shares a lot with the Old Left (e.g. his materialism), but he was very much a part of the New Left in its heyday. I do take your point that there are those who would consider Chomsky to be “Old Left,” but I think that view entails a rather narrow and distorted view of what the New Left was.

Lurking in the background of this discussion is, I think, a tendency on the part of both poststructuralists and their critics to entirely identify the New Left with poststructuralism and vice versa.  Their is clearly a genealogical relationship here, but the New Left, historically speaking, predated poststructuralism and cannot simply be reduced to it.  This might be bringing us back to the early New Left / late New Left distinction that was important to this discussion that Scott doesn’t want to have again.  But I’m not sure that the implied characterization of the New Left even works for the late New Left.  Chomsky, after all, first made a national (and international) name for himself in the political realm in the late Sixties (with, for example, his 1969 NYRB’s essay on the responsibilities of intellectuals). As far as I know, the (late) New Left of the day welcomed his contributions and did not denounce him as an “Old Leftists” (despite his being over 30).

By on 06/01/06 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I come at this from the perspective of a software engineer, not a philosopher or literary theorist. So please forgive me if I’m glossing past a lot of the nuance, here, because much of it strikes me along lines of what I used to hear fifteen years ago, as an undergrad, when the lit-crit majors who lived in the dorm room next door would into drunken arguments at four in the morning.

But it seems to me that, at a macro level, Jeff is making a fairly uncontroversial point. An author generally has something in mind when he sets pen to paper. One who parses the text without privileging the author’s intent can certainly arrive at a meaning, but it may or may not be the author’s meaning, and I’d consider it a corruption of the language to call this process “interpretation”: out here in non-theory-land we call it “guessing”, or, less charitably, “making shit up”.

Do words carry meaning apart from authorial intent? Surely: the copy of Merriam-Webster’s I’ve got on my desk is just a list of conventional definitions of words, and it’s a reasonable default assumption that the author was abiding by the conventions of his era and his location. But I don’t see how this argues against Jeff’s basic point that the author’s intent is determinative; that the creator defines the canon.

By on 06/01/06 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In terms of Old Left and New Left—I’m assuming that we are discussing this in terms of academic scholarship?

Are we speaking of literary critics in particular here?  (for example, the Old Historicism versus the New Historicists?  The New Criticism, ect?)

Or are we also referring to historians and cultural anthropologists?
(E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, for example?)

By on 06/01/06 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, sorry for not replying earlier, but I only saw and approved your comment after I’d posted mine.  So:

Do Michaels’ essays such as the n+1 piece (which is freshest in my mind) necessarily entail his theory of meaning? if so how?

Here’s where Sean and I disagree--that’s not the right word--here’s where Sean and I are speaking to different ends.  Michaels certainly thinks that his early work follows from his theory of meaning.  From Shape of the Signifier:

This movement from questions about the ontology of the text to an insistence on the primacy of the subject makes a single argument out of what I have in my own writing treated as two separate arguments and two separate proects....So, although I did not in writing it nderstand Our America‘s critique of identity to be in any significant way connected to the defense of intention in “Against Theory,” the argument of the current book is not only that they are connected but that eac claim entails the other. (10)

Sean’s correct to point out that the connection Michaels believes logical and necessary between the two may not be sound; but what I tried to do here was to say “If we take Michaels at his word, if his critique of identity entails his theory of meaning and vice versa, what do we do with someone like Goldstein who takes both seriously, but in directions Michaels would consider morally reprehensible.” Formulated like that, the problem doesn’t sound that interesting; I suppose what prompted me to start this thread was that I saw Jeff make and be attacked for a number of Michaelsian moves which, all other things being equal, I find intellectually compelling.  The attacks on Jeff’s methods seemed, at first, thinly veiled attacks on his politics; but the more I read, the more I understood that people actually believe those Michaelsian moves to be somehow inherently conservative.  Understandably, that bothered me, since even though I’ve my Food Not Bombs days behind, I still consider myself far left of center.  (Which, I know, may seem to put me in the center, given how far right it currently is.  But I’m well to the left where it’s supposed to be, too.)

From other posts, I take it you mean to indicate that you are: a) very much left of center; but b) very opposed to the New Left.

What you say after the colon pretty much captures my position.  I use “Old Left” as a shorthand for the alternative to the “New” and its intellectual legacy in English departments, but you’re right that I’ve unburdened it of much of its intellectual content.  I should probably stop with the shorthand, then.

[more responses to everyone else after I’ve marked another couple of drafts]

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/01/06 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Before the original debate crashed and burned Thers was starting to use Pierre Bourdieu to critique JG’s approach to literature. 

(Does this information help answer Scott’s original political question about how JG approaches literary theory?)
-----------------

In the past I have identified the New Left with Cultural Studies and the Birmingham school.  (via reading such books as Dennis L. Dworkin’s Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britin: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies.)

And I would also associate books such as Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America, as being influenced by cultural studies.  (Obviously I’m simplifying here.)

I’m a bit surprised that Scott identifies with the Old Left, as I would have guessed that he would be interested in Denning and other authors influenced by cultural studies.  (Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart, ect.)

Furthermore, I would have classified Terry Eagleton with the New Left, but he wrote After Theory (2003).  Do you all classify Eagleton as something else, then?

I guess I’m confused on where the scholarly line is being drawn here.

By on 06/01/06 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m surprised at the refusal here to address the intebyionakist critique. But why should I be surprised? Pioneering thinkers are always ignored by their contemporaries.

I call myself an Old New Leftist. The Old Leftists (A) were partyline Marxists and the like. The New Leftists (B) were a transient and perishable movement that began about 1962. The Nihilist (Stoner) Left (C) took over around 1968, and was succeeded by the Cultural Left (D), around 1972. Left history moved very fast from 1962 to 1972, when ir stopped entirely. The Cultural Left remains in power on the left ("power" in the sense of “powerless"), unless you count the DLC-controlled Democrats as left.

Scott and I have argued extensively about this, and he requested that the issue not be brought up, and then he went and did it.

Scott identifies B, C, and D, and

By John Emerson on 06/01/06 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps the term “left conservatives” will illuminate some of the fault lines of the more recent controversy without going all the way back to the 1930s.  For a view from one participant, try the essay by Patrick Sand here.

By on 06/01/06 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott wrote:

I suppose what prompted me to start this thread was that I saw Jeff make and be attacked for a number of Michaelsian moves which, all other things being equal, I find intellectually compelling.  The attacks on Jeff’s methods seemed, at first, thinly veiled attacks on his politics; but the more I read, the more I understood that people actually believe those Michaelsian moves to be somehow inherently conservative.

It sounds like you are asking if “our attacks” on Jeff were because of his Michaelsian method. (As you may know, I, Phila and Thers were the three people primarly involved in this mess from Metacomments.)

Not having read Michaels, you may want to give me a specific example of some of these exchanges that caused this particular question.

I can give an example or two of how I respond to Jeff’s analysis of language.  Please let me know if it helps clarify the situation.  I am personally interested to know what we said that was contrary to Michaels.

EXAMPLE 1:  How Jeff applied his literary criticism to the use of the phrase “Tar Baby” by Tony Snow, and the response to Snow’s use of “Tar Baby” by Think Progress.

The situation:  Snow used the word Tar Baby as a descriptive phrase when briefing the press.  Think Progress criticized his use of the phrase, noting the history of the phrase and its racial connotations. 

Jeff’s response, using his applied literary theory:

Under this description, the utterer (Snow) is responsible for the entire history of the signifier’s usage.  Which, followed to it’s logical extreme suggests that it is language that controls the utterer, and not the other way around.

What makes such a suggestion dangerous is that, once we concede this (erroneous) semiotic point, we have surrendered our right to mean what we mean to the whims of a particular interpretative community—who, as is the case with TP and their ilk, may be so disposed to suggest (either cynically or because of some fundamental misunderstanding of how interpretation works) that our meaning, created at the moment we add our signified(s) to the signifier, is secondary to the “meaning” others can make out of our utterances.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, once our meaning is successfully marginalized, the intentions of the interpreter to make our utterances “mean” what he or she says it means (through force of will, and using as a justification the fact that the sounds like those we have uttered have been used in the past to mean something other than what we meant when we uttered them) creates the conditions for relativism that are at the heart of any interpretive paradigm refusing to honor original intent.

Worse, such an incoherent linguistic maneuver allows interpreters to pick and choose how to frame the meaning of the utterer (be the utterer Tony Snow or Bill Bennett or Captain Ed), and it is not difficult to see how very convenient such a procedure is for those willing to put it to strong ideological use.

(cited from Protein Wisdom at 10:54 on thursday May 18th in Jeff’s post “Tarring the “Tar-Baby” Tarrers”.)

Jeff again used his literary theory to refer to the Tar Baby incident: 

Real world consequences when we allow that originary intent does not ground meaning—but rather reactions do, and the intentions of the interpreter can somehow magically be said to combine with the intention of the “author” as part of originary meaning, a maneuver that allows for a rather cynical misuse of speech acts (see, for instance, this post on Tony Snow and Think Progress)

(cited at Majikthise, May 30, 2006, at 6:27 PM in her post “What in hell is Goldstein talking about")

My response would say - of course Tony Snow’s intent is important.  But words have their own histories.  It is naive to remove a word from its own history.  It is also naive to expect that Tony Snow’s audience will not have a reaction to the history of the words that they hear. 

I think that the history of a word and the social and cultural context of language is very, very important. 

--------------------------------------
In a similar vein, I think you can see how Thersites was using a sociologist like Bourdieu to critique Jeff’s approach to language.  As Phila wrote:

Thersites’s angle is more or less summed up by this quote from Bourdieu:

“Symbolic productions… owe their most specific properties to the social conditions of their production and, more precisely, to the position of the producer in the field of production, which governs, through various forms of mediation, not only the expressive interest and the form and the censorship which is imposed on it, but also the competence which allows this interest to be satisfied within the limits of these constraints. The dialectical relation which is established between the expressive interest and censorship prevents us from distinguishing in the opus operatum between form and content, that is, between what is said and the manner of saying it or even the manner of hearing it.”

Goldstein’s dealt with neither objection adequately so far, in my opinion...
....
Posted by: Phila | May 30, 2006 at 09:06 PM

(I have cut this post from the comment thread at Majikthise for May 30, 9:06 for her post “What in hell is Goldstein talking about.")

Jeff again used his literary theory to refer to the Tar Baby usage of Snow. 

Real world consequences when we allow that originary intent does not ground meaning—but rather reactions do, and the intentions of the interpreter can somehow magically be said to combine with the intention of the “author” as part of originary meaning, a maneuver that allows for a rather cynical misuse of speech acts (see, for instance, this post on Tony Snow and Think Progress)

(cited at Majikthise, May 30, 2006, at 6:27 PM in her post “What in hell is Goldstein talking about")
-----

Scott, as you are interested in historical context, I would be surprised if you would be willing to remove words from their historical and social context. 

Am I misunderstanding your position?  Is there something else that made you question what I was objecting to about Jeff’s use of language?

I think Jeff uses his “theoretics” to justify his own political positions. 

But the application of his theoretics, in which he removes language from its historical and social context, doesn’t necessarily mean he must be a conservative, it just means he’s silly (in my opinion) to ignore the historical and social world in which Snow gives his press conferences. 

Neither Jeff nor Snow can control how Snow’s audience interprets Snow’s words.  And to pretend that Snow can fully control the reception of his words is just that—a state of denial. 

Let me know if this helps to clarify the situation.

By on 06/01/06 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From Sand:

“X is a technical, professional language that nonspecialists should neither attempt to criticize nor expect to understand."

He’s citing Bove, whose “X” is postmodernism, but anyone trying to be a well-informed layman/generalist will get it from almost everywhere.

Simultaneously claiming real-world authority while refusing to respond to external critiques and queries is characteristic of weak paradigms. People in fields like physics often actually work quite hard to explain their genuinely-difficult work to outsiders.

By John Emerson on 06/01/06 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

EDIT: “Scott identifies B, C, and D, and seemingly affiliates with A. I affiliate with B, which I distinguish from C and D.”

By John Emerson on 06/01/06 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson,

Oh my goodness.  I have no idea what I am. But I like the idea of the alphabetical designation.  One of my friends says I should read Michael Denning’s book Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.

Maybe you all could just name some books and scholars you like.  I guess I’m trying to get a picture of your scholarly interests. 

I’m influenced by a bunch of things in my study of history, including bits of Habermas, Foucault, historicism, audience response, and cultural studies. 

Here’s some books I like:

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultlural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1800-1917.

Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance

John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in 19th century Urban America

Laura Rigal, The American Manufactory: Art, Labor and the World of Things in the Early Republic.

(I haven’t read this one for years, but his application of Habermas influenced me:  Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in 18th century America.)

By on 06/01/06 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just wrote a post about how I’m not up to writing a serious post, but I can list influences.  Here’s my “primer” on new historicism.  I’m not endorsing those works so much as saying they’re “important,” however, so let me add this:

The Fliegelman’s important to me because, well, because one of the guys on my committee is one of his students, so I’ve read and absorbed quite a bit of his work.  I’ve read the Denning, and while I think it’s better than some of the other candidates--Cary Nelson, for one--I still have some problems with it that I’ll elucidate at some point in the future when I’m capable of doing so.  For now, I’ll just say that I find Alan Wald’s New York Intellectuals and Exiles from a Future Time more to my taste.  That said, geoduck2, I’d say our approaches are influenced by a similar group of thinkers (so long as you subtract Habermas, who I haven’t read enough of to be influenced by).  Also, I’ll respond to the non-listing-of-books-I’ve-read material in the morning.  (Sorry, but a nearly-flattened-boy can only last so long without a little medication.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/01/06 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We do do have similar influences!  (see Rigal)

I saw that you’re reading his Publics and Counterpublics.  I’ve heard good things about that book.  (Isn’t that book influenced by Habermas?)

Anyway - take care and feel better.  (don’t feel like you have to respond to any posts—I know you’re not feeling well.  And you’re grading papers! eeek!)

The only thing I’m doing is procrastinating on getting ready for a conference and visiting relatives.

By on 06/01/06 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Geoduck --

Why are you here pretending I haven’t already addressed your concerns elsewhere?

You write:

I think Jeff uses his “theoretics” to justify his own political positions. 

But the application of his theoretics, in which he removes language from its historical and social context, doesn’t necessarily mean he must be a conservative, it just means he’s silly (in my opinion) to ignore the historical and social world in which Snow gives his press conferences.

Of course, I do no such thing.  I have simply said that it makes no sense for Think Progress to say that Tony Snow didn’t intend to say anything racist (or even racial), but that his signifiers alone, regardless of what he intented by them—and despite the contextual clues he used to signal what he meant—were in fact racist on their face, the idea being that the signifier carries with it the ghost of all its potential signifieds.

But what such an argument suggests is that “tar-baby”—in no matter what context it is used (and I cited Robert Anton Wilson’s “tar-baby principle” as a counter to the suggestion that one must in fact even be referring to JCH’s Uncle Remus Tales)—must necesarily be racial (at best), or racist (at worst) the moment some listerner decides to hear it as such.  After all, you’ve just said that Snow’s intentions are trumped by those of the historical usage of a given signifier—or in other words, by history, culture, and convention.

Which means that it is just as possible for some interpreter to become quite exercised should a conservative use the word “spade,” ever were s/he clearly referring to doing some gardening work.  And I find giving that kind of privilege to the listener, when the ostensible job is to “interpret,” rather dangerous, not the least because some motivated political opponent might see an opportunity to make hay out of the non racial use of a term that was at some other point in time used racially.

So you see, I think it is you, geoduck, who has decided to see my theoretics through the prism of my politics.  Whereas all I am doing is providing a description of how I think signification grounds meaning—whether the signification comes from the utterer of the receiver.  From my perspective, all I care about is that we locate from which end it comes.

I must say, though, that it is refreshing just to be “silly” in this forum, and not to be a “paste-eating moron”.

You continue:

Neither Jeff nor Snow can control how Snow’s audience interprets Snow’s words.  And to pretend that Snow can fully control the reception of his words is just that—a state of denial.

This first part is correct:  Jeff nor Snow can control how Snow’s audience interpret’s Snow’s words.  Were that the case, we wouldn’t be having this argument, because you would have understood what I was saying by now.

But so what? Does that failure to control the trajectory of our utterances mean that, because neither Snow nor I can control what his audience does with the utterance once it is publicly available, we must therefore accept that everything the audience does with it is not only valid, but somehow redounds to me or Snow? 

I don’t think that’s the case.  But either way, so long as the interpreter makes the claim that we somehow intended to make racial or racist arguments, even though we tried hard to disguise that intent, s/he is engaging in an intentionalist argument.  And I would have no problem with the argument on theoretical grounds, though I’d counter it with an interpretation that cited context and convention to argue that Snow was in fact not using the phrase in a way that was inappropriate to anyone other than those who are predisposed to turn benign usage into something less than innocent.

As for the second part, your strawman is showing here.  Because never once have I said that an author can fully control the reception of his words.  In fact, if I believed that, this entire discussion would be moot.

Instead, I’ve said that to interpret is to appeal to the author’s intent—to try to decode how that particular originating agency was using those particular signs to mean.  None of which guarantees that an interpreter will always recover that meaning by sussing out the intent, but at least the effort being made is to understand the speech act as it was created, rather than simply to play games with signifiers, and then turn around and privilege the results of that play while assigning it to the utterer, who has no control over how you resignify, particularly if you are determined to resignify in a way that is predisposed to reach a certain reading.

Let me know if this helps to clarify the situation.

By on 06/01/06 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Topic:  The use of “Tar Baby” by Snow.

Jeff wrote:

But so what? Does that failure to control the trajectory of our utterances mean that, because neither Snow nor I can control what his audience does with the utterance once it is publicly available, we must therefore accept that everything the audience does with it is not only valid, but somehow redounds to me or Snow?

I do not care if it is “valid” in a a-historical abstract sense.  I am interested in the historical contextualization of actions and words. (Being a historian.)

As a historian I am interested in Snow’s intent.  I am also interested in the audience’s reception.  I am also curious about the circumstances in how the speech was communicated.

For me it is beyond useless to separate the intent of Snow from the social and historical context his world.

Jeff wrote:

I don’t think that’s the case.  But either way, so long as the interpreter makes the claim that we somehow intended to make racial or racist arguments, even though we tried hard to disguise that intent, s/he is engaging in an intentionalist argument.  And I would have no problem with the argument on theoretical grounds, though I’d counter it with an interpretation that cited context and convention to argue that Snow was in fact not using the phrase in a way that was inappropriate to anyone other than those who are predisposed to turn benign usage into something less than innocent.

ok. But so what?  The words still have a history, Snow has a history, and we all exist in a particular historical moment.

For example - one can argue ‘till the cows come home whether it is “racist” to object to Mexican flags at immigration rallys.  Or that it’s “racist” to promote English first laws or Prop 187 is “racist.” Because while we can debate an abstracted vision of “rightness” many, many people of Hispanic heritage will make up their own minds.

They have the power to interpret the language for themselves and they will act on that power.  (See the voting patterns in California after the publicity surrounding Prop 187.)

I am less concerned with who is “right” as the historical facts on the ground.  I find these abstract arguments unhelpful in understanding history.

Language has a historical context.  People respond to that language in a historical context.

By on 06/02/06 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

geoduck2,

My own scholarly interest is in Chinese Taoism, the rise of the Mongol empire, and Eurasian history. I dabble in various pre-XXc cultural areas. My politics has been picked up from the last 40 years of public debate—I don’t have a theoretical take on it.

I have an intense dislike of Lacan and whatever has come from him, analytic philosophy, and neo-classical economics, and like Scott I prefer the themes of old leftism to the politics of sex, gender, identity, and so on. I affiliate with pragmatism, though pragmatism was too complacent and needs supplementation with more politically radical thinking. Pragmatism also is lacking in inwardness, so I supplement it with Chinese philosophy of various schools. By this method I am able to avoid Heidegger too.

One of my pet issues is opposition to the bureaucratization, specialization, methodologization, and paradigmatization of university scholarship over the last 60 years.

I tend to be very pessemistic at the present historical moment.

PS. I have proposed the geoduck as the totem animal for The Valve, though it would probably be a better totem for a site called “The Siphon”:

Geoduck Valve (on the right)

Another good logo has already been taken:

Valve

By John Emerson on 06/02/06 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since we’re bedding Oddfellows, to follow up on a point that Jeff G. (perhaps unintentionally) just made: One of the peculiar things about this “no meaning but in assumed intention” stance is that it seems to me exactly the source of the sort of naively offensive psychoanalytic, Marxist, identitarian, or fundamentalist criticism which I think Michaels and McCann dislike as much as I do. “We can imagine these meanings while reading (or skimming) the text and therefore we must speak as if we have uncovered the truth about the author. That bounder.” Leading to a not particularly interesting and not at all decidable debate as to the character of the original author—and, of course, the characters of the critics. Those bounders.

Go to the other reader-centered extreme and you end up with the vapidity of Proust-as-self-help and evolution-makes-us-love-Thomas-Kinkade books.

Whereas assuming that meanings are social, dynamic, performative, and often downright ineffable seems to me to allow for richer and more historically nuanced criticism.

By Ray Davis on 06/02/06 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder why the type is showing up in all italics?

John,

yea! for the geoduck.

I haven’t read Lacan.  I don’t know enought about him to know what I think about his theories. 

I think the history of race and gender is important.  As I study the history of slavery, race and woman’s citizenship rights in 19th c. America, that is probably not surprising.

---------------------------
I’m not a twentieth centurist—but I think an argument could be made that by using “the Southern Strategy” the modern Republican Party (post Brown and the Voting Rights Act) was built using the politics of race and class.  ("Welfare Queens”, the explicit use of the “Southern Strategy,” ect.)

--------------------------
My biggest pet peeve in scholarship is a-historicism.  (In my world: The 11th commandment is—Thou Shall Not Commit A-Historical Errors.  A-Historicism = Blasphemy)

By on 06/02/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Geoduck --

I find it odd that as an historian you claim “is beyond useless to separate the intent of Snow from the social and historical context his world”—particularly when the idea of whether we should be separating his intent from the social and historical context of his world is, well, a question that exists within the social and historical context of his world, for the very reasons I note:  namely, that a failure to do so privileges an idea of interpretation that can be manipulated in grossly opportunistic ways.  So determining if a particular interpretation is accepted as valid—and why—should, I’d think, be of supreme interest to an historian who claims an interest in language as it exists in an historical context. 

For instance, I’ve argued that the way we think about what it is we are doing when we interpret influences the philosophical ground for very real policy decisions, etc. 

So when you say:

“I am less concerned with who is ‘right’ as the historical facts on the ground.  I find these abstract arguments unhelpful in understanding history"

—I find such an argument very peculiar, in that it wishes to bracket from “history” both who is “right” at any given moment, and the kinds of “abstract” arguments we are having now.  Because both questions are clearly taking place within an historical context, and so are part of the history you claim to be studying; so to dismiss them as somehow ahistorical and not part of the historical facts on the ground doesn’t strike me as particularly consistent with the rest of what you say.

But I think I’m going to let Scott take it up with you from here.

By on 06/02/06 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Geoduck, I don’t think that race and gender are always irrelevant, but since 1972 or so (in my experience) left politics has been increasingly dominated by identity politics (gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

By John Emerson on 06/02/06 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I call myself an Old New Leftist. The Old Leftists (A) were partyline Marxists and the like”

Wouldn’t some classical anarchists be considered among this Old Left?

As to Chomsky I should note that he is more asocioated with anarcho-syndicalism (think Spanish Civil War) than anarcho-communism.

By on 06/02/06 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray --

Decidability and certainty have nothing to do with it.  And I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the difficulty and uncertainty of ever really getting to the exact meaning intended by the utterer as “not particularly interesting.” It may not be interesting to you, but to others it may be quite interesting—and as it pertains to what we think we’re doing when we interpret, I’d say it’s crucial (if remarkably obvious).

Intentionalism is really just a matter of taking a particular stance with regards to a text. It doesn’t say you must avoid doing other things with texts.  It just describes the interpretive situation. 

You write, “[...] assuming that meanings are social, dynamic, performative, and often downright ineffable seems to me to allow for richer and more historically nuanced criticism.”

You can assume all those things and still recognize that some agency is involved in producing the meaning you wish to study for its potential richness and ineffability.  In this case, I’d say that agency is you.

Which is why I have argued that our assumptions about how we think interpretation works at any given moment can have an impact on history, culture, convention, et al.

By on 06/02/06 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

- As a physicist, I’m seeing this “reciever deciding authorian intent” argument in a purely physiological context. That is to say, the process of “information flow” in itself, as a practical matter, is only understood indirectly.

- We can “see” the source, “see” the results, even “see” its a “change” on a static agent that provides the vehical, but what it “is” we have not a clue. In this regard, it shares remarkably. some of the same characteristics as that of gravity. We can do all the requisite things principle to studying, predicting, and using gravity as a “force”, but we do not know what it “is”.

- Einstein suffered greatly through his life, arguing this problem with himself, changing his views several times, centered on the concept of gravity as an all prevasive “ether”. At one point he called his “ether” theories “the greatest mistake of my life”. Later he recanted, saying he was probably right all along, and went to his end still agonizing over it. 

- The reason I bring this up go’s back to the example I cited earlier. As an interpreter I can make either of two decisions as to the “actual” meaning or “intent” of the author, but the act of interpreting either outcome, effects in no way the “fact” of the authors intent. I can even manage to convince everyone else on the planet as to the “rightness” of my interpretation. That still does not change the authors original intent, or even effect the “fact” of it. It exists in its own right. How things are effected historically is an entirely different matter, and would necessarily depend on the any widely accepted “interpretation”, regardless if it were the same, or at odds, with the authors intent.

- One aspect is “facts” on the ground (interpretation), the other “fact” of authorship (intent), which I see as two entirely self-sufficient agents of communication.

By on 06/02/06 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When I refer to who is “right” I’m talking about the question of: Was Tony Snow’s use of the phrase “Tar Baby” the proper thing to do?

I am not interested in judging Snow’s use of the phrase.  Likewise, I am not interested in judging the response to his use of the phrse.  If someone else wants to do this - then go right ahead.

In other words, I have no interest in standing up and yelling “Tony Snow is teh Racist! or Tony Snow is a Great and Noble Man!”

(Actually, the whole thing as an event is pretty uninteresting to me.)

Rather, I am interested in analyzing his phrase, the conditions in which the phrse was produced, the original audience to this phrase, the history of the phrase, and the multiple audience responses to his phrase.

---------------

I brought up the “Tar Baby” discussion as an example for Scott of how Jeff uses his thoughts about language and original intent to make political points on his blog.  Jeff enjoys talking about original intent in isolation from the the historical context of language.  He is also uninterested in the reception of the phrase, except to criticize people for misunderstanding the original intent.

I think understanding intent is very important.  This understanding should be situated withi in a particular historical moment. Scholars should not, in my opinion, ignore the historical context.

So if twenty years from now—if I was to write about this debate of Tar Baby—I would need to explain the history of the phrase Tar Baby for it to make sense to my readers.  For example, I would need to explain the movie “Song of the South” that popularized that phrase with a movie about the mythical character of Uncle Remus.

I think that to deny the historical past or remove the historical context from the production of language is not something that scholars ought to do.

By on 06/02/06 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The words still have a history, Snow has a history, and we all exist in a particular historical moment.”

Yes, but the Historical Moment of Snow uttering the words “tar baby” is not the SAME Historical Moment from which “tar baby” emerges. 2006 is not 1860. To work oneself up over a public utterance of “tar baby” which is not intended as racist is therefore to pretend that it is still 1860, and that Snow is to be judged accordingly.

Somehow, this seems a-historical to me.

By Andrew on 06/02/06 at 02:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fascinating discussion. This has been the most absorbing blog-reading in which I’ve engaged in ages; clearly, The Valve attracts some of the sharpest minds around.

That said, after making my way through all of this, I’m tempted to give up reading altogether. Being of the “ordinary,” it suddenly seems like way too much work to do it properly, however that is defined. Not too joyful, either.

By on 06/02/06 at 02:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The following is another example intent and reception.  It’s rather humorous:

There is a convenience store chain in the MidWest named “Cum & Go.” (Think of a 7-11.)

Now, for people who have not grown up with these stores, some of us were rather taken aback by the name.  (When I first saw one of these stores I wondered if it was a porn store.)

There was a debate about the store beginning to stock Playboys.  This engendered many humerous and juvenille jokes about the store name.

Now, the original intent of the store was obviously not “Cum” in the slang/sexual sense of the word. 

However, in the historical context of the use of that word, the audience reception is what it is.
The audience also understands (usually) that the owners of the store did not mean “Cum” in a sexual sense of the word.  (Some out-of-state visitors are originally surprised, and consequently amused.)
------

I understand the original intent.  However, should we ignore the audience reception?  Should we ignore the historical context of the word? 

Should we dismiss the audience response as a bunch of dirty-minded perverted people?  (Heh, perhaps so.)

By on 06/02/06 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, but the Historical Moment of Snow uttering the words “tar baby” is not the SAME Historical Moment from which “tar baby” emerges. 2006 is not 1860. To work oneself up over a public utterance of “tar baby” which is not intended as racist is therefore to pretend that it is still 1860, and that Snow is to be judged accordingly.

I quite agree that 1860 is not 2006.  (Although I would guess that many people of my generation learned of the phrase Tar Baby from the Disney movie “Song of the South.” The phrase about “Don’t throw me into the Briar Patch!” was also popularized from that movie.)

And I quite also think Snow’s use of this phrase is not something to get “worked up” over. 

However, let’s say 20 years in the future I was analyzing that particular press conference that Snow gave.  (Or let’s say I was interested in a history of the phrase “tar baby.")

I would need to understand where that phrase came from.  I think “Song of the South” would be a relevant historical document to understand the cultural meaning of the phrase “Tar Baby.”

By on 06/02/06 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I understand the original intent.  However, should we ignore the audience reception?  Should we ignore the historical context of the word?

If your purpose is to portray the proprietors of the Cum and Go as prurient or perverts, then by all means, engage all of these things and anything else you can toss into the interpretational stew, at the expense of thier sincere and perfectly innocent intent. 

Too often, that’s the purpose and it is something scholars ought not do.

By on 06/02/06 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “tar baby” story is from about 1880 and was written by a moderate Confederate apologist. It was quite OK up until 1965 or so. Time has not neutralized it, entirely the opposite. The story itself does not have a big racial message.

By John Emerson on 06/02/06 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John said:

I don’t think that race and gender are always irrelevant, but since 1972 or so (in my experience) left politics has been increasingly dominated by identity politics (gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

I see all politics (and the media) as increasingly dominated by the politics of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. 

For example, see the way that the right mobilized its base in Ohio (and elsewhere) in 2004 with the marriage amendment referenda.

Or the discussions of race during Katrina.

Or the discussions of sex during the Clinton presidency.

Or the Nixon southern strategy.

Or the discussions of the morning after pill.

It appears to me that our society is obsessed with race, gender and sexual differences.  (And with the politics of race, gender, and sexual identities.  And, of course, the politics of sex and reproduction itself.)

By on 06/02/06 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

- Attending nothing from a political standpoint, but rather just focusing on intent, historical aspects appended, and long term mechanisms of interpretation, as I understood the general consensus was that Snow was using the tar baby reference to demure from being pulled into an ancillary off topic area, which he felt was not apropos to the area’s he wanted to cover. How would twenty years make any difference to a future interpreter, given the context of the actual event was still intact, and would necessarily lend the same signs to the listener/reader? Or is that possibility the part of the process what you are interested in geo?

By on 06/02/06 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a funny semi-relevant aside:

http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2006/06/the_two_minutes.html

By on 06/02/06 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Those are all examples of the powerful and negative influence of right wing identity politics, and are all very bad things.

This is off-topic to the thread, and I’m not prepared to give a good statement of my own position. But since 1973 or so the left has tended ot be dominated by mirror-image antagonists of white heterosexual male identity politics, while traditional leftist class politics had been allowed to dwindle. Often the oppositional politics has tended to focus on “the personal” for members of the oppositional identity groups, so that it becomes dominated by therapy, self-expression, subculture traits, etc. Ultimately the various oppositional groups don’t get along very well anyway, so various splintered identity groups end up ineffectively facing and economic and political power structure which is predominantly but not only white-male-heterosexual, and often enough leaders of the various identity splinters are coopted into the dominant structure.

Anecdotally, the last straw for me was a big weeks-long pissing match in the Portland City Council between the M2F transsexuals and the lesbians.

By John Emerson on 06/02/06 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I’ve been quite cordial here. But once again, geoduck is talking out of both sides of her mouth.

I invite you to check out his thread to see what I’ve been dealing with since the start of this discussion.  Here, geoduck pretends to seriousness.  There? I’m once again a [stuff].
It’s really a shame that attempts at substantive debate—and Scott has noticed that I’ve tried to engage in good faith—have been reduced to the kind of self-satisfied revisionism and ad hominem evidenced in the linked thread.

By on 06/03/06 at 12:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Jeff,

Quote what I said.  Please do not lie about me.

I am happy to leave this discussion if I am a disruptive presence on this blog. 

Scott, you have my e-mail.  Let me know if you’d like me to remove myself from the conversation.  I would like to accomodate your wishes. 

Jeff,

You have private information on Thers and his wife that you have reposted on your website.  I would be very, very thankful to you if you would remove their private information of where they live and where they work. 

Thank you very much.

By on 06/03/06 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

{i}There is a convenience store chain in the MidWest named “Cum & Go.” (Think of a 7-11.){/i}

Actually, the stores are “Kum & Go”

{i}Should we dismiss the audience response as a bunch of dirty-minded perverted people?  (Heh, perhaps so.){/i}

Yes, perhaps we should.

By on 06/03/06 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I only brought up the Tar Baby example to continue the question of whether intentionalism is necessarily of the political right or political left.

I think the search for original meaning is not a partisan act.

However, when it is used in a partisan way, and the historical contexts (or the history of words themselves) are ignored, then I would argue this is not scholarship, but instead the partisan use of language.

In fact, I would say the search for original meaning and its historical context is critical to not only good scholarship, but necessary to understand history.

My point was to explicate for Scott the answer to his question: was intentionalism itself under attack? 

My answer is No.

------------------

How would twenty years make any difference to a future interpreter, given the context of the actual event was still intact, and would necessarily lend the same signs to the listener/reader? Or is that possibility the part of the process what you are interested in geo?

In my research I always have to search the past for my primary research.  This distance always reminds me that I cannot assume anything from my own personal knowledge.  “The Past is a Foreign Country” and all that. 

I would gather all the primary evidence I could find (news recordings of the press conference, blog sites, any news paper stories, ect.)

If I ran across the controversy, I would try to understand why Think Progress objected to the phrase.  I would research the history of the phrase and its use and connotations in the early 21st century. 

(Did I answer your question?  The passage of time makes the recovery of primary documents more difficult; but it also helps remove us from personal investment and there is no involvement in the day-to-day politics of the situation.)

And on a side note - even researchers have a hard time getting copies of Song of the South because of Disney has withdrawn the movie from circulation.

By on 06/03/06 at 03:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Valve attracts some of the sharpest minds around.

Well, three or four of them, anyway. If you guys wanted to wank ecstatic about W.B. Michaels, why didn’t you just say so?

By on 06/03/06 at 05:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the mortality of intentions.

By Ray Davis on 06/03/06 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

It would be interesting to talk about this sometime. Perhaps on another thread?
--------------
To the Moderator,

It looks like this thread is heading towards a personal blog war and away from a discussion of literary theory.  I hope everyone continues to discuss literary theory and the intersection of relevant political questions. 

My suggestion to the moderator is to delete or edit any comment that pertains to a personal grievance.  If you do not moderate this thread, the chances of having an interesting discussion about issues of substance are very small.

By on 06/03/06 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wendy: You beat me to the Kum & Go correction.

The following silly little anecdote probably proves some part of someone’s point, but I’m too confused now to be sure:

After moving to this area of the Midwest from the East Coast, the name of this convenience store quickly became a running joke to my husband, who had never heard of it before. (I was more familiar with the area, having maintained some ties from the days of my father’s first college teaching post.) DH couldn’t get over how anyone could miss the double-meaning.

In contrast, we’ve had visitors from out of the area who have completely missed that. On one notable occasion, a guest complained at length about the “awful” business technique of deliberately misspelling words to get attention. She was “offended” by that as setting a bad example, but apparently didn’t get the other possible reference. (She also hates the names “Sav-A-Lot” and “Rite Aid,” for example, for the same reason.)

There’s really no accounting for what people will do with the text that they see, and how they then react and on what basis.

For my part, there’s not time enough in the day.

Besides, the world would be a better place if all convenience stores were part of the Wawa franchise. Better stuff, and, for whatever reason, the name makes me want to giggle.

By on 06/03/06 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Geoduck2, since I’ve greatly appreciated your contributions in all these forums, I’ll implicate myself in your call for civility and say I’m duly admonished. Also, admittedly, I was extremely drunk when calling our generous hosts “wankers.” Apologies all around.

The more elegant way to have expressed my frustration would have been thusly: It’s interesting to me that the debate in this thread has, in the name of civility, been conducted between three clearly brilliant fellows who have set a new standard (for me) of rigor. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that it has taken place among only THREE people one of whom was presumed to be doing “the heavy lifting.” There are innumerable directions this conversation could have taken, including surely, the political valence of “intentionalism” as it’s used to discredit “activist” judges (a possibility foreclosed when SEK declared that “intentionalism” isn’t political because it isn’t for Walter Benn Michaels). Instead, the dominant strain of thought in this thread hasn’t strayed far from Our America under the preposterous pretense that Goldstein’s argument and the discourse of intentionalism generally originates in, or is informed or owned by Our America. I must say I can’t believe Michaels’ theory of intentionalism or interpretation is best represented in that book, but I suppose that’s beside the point. In any event, I only aim to make the point that “intentionalism” resonates more broadly (and yes, even in the political arena) than this thread has made it out.

By on 06/04/06 at 03:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Allow me to amend to my previous comment: every comment here has been enlightening, but the most stimulating ones have not mentioned Walter Benn Michaels, as fascinating as his work is. Apologies to the dozens of people I may have offended and/or the handful of people who may still be reading this thread.

By on 06/04/06 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that either of John’s counterexamples is the knockout blow to Knapp and Michaels he believes they are.

Take the chess example: “But don’t you have to know they intend to make a chess move? Actually, no. You just need to know that it is written in algebraic chess notation.” But “knowing that it is written in algebraic chess notation” requires knowing the writer’s intention; unless, that is, you take “being written in algebraic chess notation” to be synonymous with “being something that could be interpreted as being algebraic chess notation,” which is, of course, the very move that K & M reject.

To be sure, Sean anticipates this objection and responds: “I think I see how in this particular case that objection doesn’t have force since if we stipulate that a computer randomly generates combinations in chess notation, the sentences will be meaningful and there won’t be an intention generating them.” But this is ambiguous. If the computer is programmed to generate only combinations is chess notation, then there is intention there: i.e., the programmer’s. If, on the other hand, the computer is merely programmed to spew out random strings of characters, and by some strange chance they all happen to be legal chess notation, then K & M can still argue that they have no meaning: they just look like algebraic chess notation, but aren’t really.

With the madlibs example, you and your wife both intended to produce English, and therefore language; so I would think that K & M would have no problems calling it language, even though they would deny it a meaning.

By Adam Stephanides on 06/04/06 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From Alice in Wonderland:

“Please, would you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, ... “why your cat grins like that?”
“It’s a Cheshire cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice didn’t think that proved it at all: however she went on. “And how do you know that you’re mad?”
“To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”
“I suppose so,” said Alice
“Well, then, “ the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”

- I think I would not tend to enjoy Carrolls writings nearly as much, were I unaware of his ‘intentional parody’ of the inhabitants of Victorian Oxford England. But then maybe thats just my own perspective.

By on 06/04/06 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, that puts my uncertainty more precisely, Adam.  But aren’t the mad-lib and the computer example at odds.  K & M would accept that the mad lib is language, but deny that is has meaning, except that imputed by a reader.  But in your clarification of the computer example, the programmer is in the same position as John and Belle, no?  A programmer intends for a computer to randomly generated sentences, but intends no single sentence.  Nevertheless, the single sentences generated have determinate meanings, which are not the product of the reader, no? 

But isn’t that only the case in an artificial language where each term can be stipulated to have only one reference or use?  In natural langauge where that’s never (?) the case, there’s no determinate meaning without intention, no?

By on 06/04/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been wondering why Scott (and possibly some other commenters?) may believe that Walter Benn Michaels’ theoretical approach lends itself to “conservative” politics? 

(Or “conservative” scholarship if that is what the commenters believe.  And how do we define “conservative” scholarship in this context?  Is Terry Eagleton a conservative literary theorist?  Is Benn Michaels?)

(In particular, I’m curious what specific points of Michaels prompted Scott to write this post?)
------------

On another list Phila brought up early 20th century American blues lyrics to demonstrate how meaning is complicated, historically specific, and also subject to censorship. 

Even taking a simple lyric - such as “Wild Women don’t get the Blues”—allows us to raise questions about the exact meaning of these lyrics.  (Phila used the example of “I need a little honey in my pot.")
----------------

I’m not a literary scholar, but I thought these sorts of questions about authorial “intent” were very 1980s, early 1990s?  I thought that compromises had been made similar to those in history departments, where scholars engage in cultural and social history with comfort. 

I would expect literary scholars to pay attention to both both authorial intent and audience response.  I would also expect that today’s literary scholars would analyze the circulation and production circumstances of texts themselves as a routine matter of research. 

We’ve been arguing this like such an pro/con, black and white sort of way.  As if one must be a DECONSTRUCTIONIST or a INTENTIONALIST and we’ve zapped ourselves back to the 1980s.

Anybody else feel like we’re in a David Lodge novel?

By on 06/05/06 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam and Sean, I don’t really have a lot to add to my old post, which anticipates and at least tries to answer precisely the objections you make to it. (Predictably, these are the things K&M will say. I can see that.) The question isn’t whether there is intention involved in, say, doing a madlib. Yes, of course. The things don’t write themselves. The question is whether it’s the right sort. Suppose the computer spews out Nd5 - knight to d5. What makes ‘Nd5’ mean knight to d5 - rather than, say, bishop to b3, or ‘I’d like a rum and coke’. Well, obviously there must have been at least some primordial investment of intentionality. Someone, at some point in the past, had to think something and intend something in order for there to be any language of any sort at all. This is not in dispute in the debate over intentionalism. The question is whether in every case - every meaningful token instantiation of Nd5 - the ONLY thing that keeps that token from meaning nothing, or ‘bishop to b5’, or ‘I’d like a rum and coke’, is the psychic fact of the actual producer of the token intending to mean, by ‘Nd5’, knight to d5.

Let me try again my theology analogy. All Christians believe that God created the universe. Some Christians are occasionalists. They believe that God must recreate the universe in every instant. Other Christians think the universe can sort of cruise on the reality it inherits from the previous instant. God can, in principle, kick back and let the system run on its own steam. Now, regarding language, everyone believes that intentionality created language. But some people - Knapp and Michaels (and Fish and a couple others) - are, in effect, occasionalists about intention. They do not accept that a sentence like ‘Nd5’ can have, as it were, a semantic inheritance in virtue of conventions for language use. They are strongly committed to the claim that ‘Nd5’ cannot mean what it does in virtue of more or less settled uses for ‘N’, ‘d’, and ‘5’, which are - at this point - specifiable quite precisely, in compete independence of any acccount of the original intentional investment. (There is a reason why programming computers to ‘read’ chess notation does not involve teaching them to model the intentions of their adversary. That information simply is not necessary, as it would be to teach them to ‘read’ English.)

Sean suggests that my sort of counter-example will only work for technical, artificial languages. I concede that probably technical languages will be the clearest. But even they are quite sufficient, because the thesis isn’t supposed to concern only natural language. It is supposed to concern all language. Also, I don’t really see that the vagueness, or ambiguity concern has a lot of bite even in the natural language case. Intentions are cloudy things, after all. If the problem is cloudy vagueness, trying to nail it down with intentions is just chasing clouds with more clouds. A sentence like ‘the car ran out of gas’ has all sorts of vagueness and ambiguity and contextual dependence. But the set of psychic events that are correlated with the utterance of that sentence? Likewise, vague, ambiguous and contextually fraught.

By John Holbo on 06/05/06 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

First, let me apologize for my disappearing over the weekend.  It’s the last week of a difficult quarter, and that kind of thing happens.  (Note to self: don’t start an involved, complicated and moderated debate in the last week of a difficult quarter.) That said, geoduck2:

I’ve been wondering why Scott (and possibly some other commenters?) may believe that Walter Benn Michaels’ theoretical approach lends itself to “conservative” politics?

It’s not that I believe they have to, but that--pace Jeff and the general opinion of WBM’s thought in English departments--it so often does or is thought to.  In short, then, you’ve just asked the original question I posed.  Which means we’ve worked ourselves full-circle.  (Not necessarily a bad thing.) I’m no more able to answer it now then when I first posed it, however.

Or “conservative” scholarship if that is what the commenters believe.  And how do we define “conservative” scholarship in this context?  Is Terry Eagleton a conservative literary theorist?  Is Benn Michaels?

“Conservative” scholarship, defined as loosely as can be, doesn’t partake of the triumphalism of identity politics--which Michaels takes pains to undermine--or in the idea of literature or cultural studies being necessarily emancipatory.  In a sense, then, all criticism is construed as “conservative” in that it doesn’t help forward the “political” platform of contemporary literary theory.  Michaels position is criticial of it, but by no means inherently “conservative” in any political sense; and yet, the two are almost always conflated. 

The prime example of Michaels’ conservatism is Our America, in which he says that despite to “race” being a social and biological fancy, it’s been mobilized by social movements who could otherwise benefit from that fact in order to achieve political objectives (the Civil Rights movement).  They created an essentializing regime atop some imaginary racial essence, and are therefore likely to always undermine the racial equality they espouse.  Now, one could say that’s an inherently conservative argument, or one could say that Michaels merely points to the historical deployment of race as a trope and the concomitant incoherence of much of what passes for “Critical Race Studies,” since it relies equally on essential and non-essential formulations of race. 

I’m not a literary scholar, but I thought these sorts of questions about authorial “intent” were very 1980s, early 1990s?

They were more prominent then, but ours isn’t an exact science.  Just because they’re not discussed anymore doesn’t mean they’re not relevant; all it means, actually, is that people tired of talking about them without finding some comfortable resolution to the discussion. 

I would expect literary scholars to pay attention to both both authorial intent and audience response.  I would also expect that today’s literary scholars would analyze the circulation and production circumstances of texts themselves as a routine matter of research.

Sort of.  Responsible scholars wrestle with these issues, but we’re not all responsible scholars; as you note, many consider such debates very ‘80s or ‘90s and dismiss their relevance with a whim.  That scholar isn’t likely to consider seriously the implications of intent or its interplay with the particular cultural moment; he or she will more likely strip it of intent, let it signify wildly in a particular historical moment, then indict the author (sans any argument about intent) for the sins such presentist freeplay “reveals.”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/05/06 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Conservative View:
“Multiculturalism tends to instability, and chaos.”

“Reader Multi-intentionalism tends to incorrect faux interpretations, and chaos.”

The Liberal View:

“Multiculturalism tends to egalitarian achievement, and collective benefits.”

“Reader Multi-intentionalism tends too rich neo-possibilities, and Literal Liberty.”

Inherent political diametrics?

By on 06/05/06 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

BBH, that’s not quite right.  After all, conservatives are just as likely to mangle intent as liberals.  I mean, look at what John Miller did to the Beatles’ “Revolution” in “The 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs“:

“You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don’t you know you can count me out?”

He elided “But when you talk about destruction” and mangled Lennon’s intent about as badly as is humanly possible.  But that’s an example of an egregiously bad interpretation, and as they say: egregiously bad interpretations are always egregiously bad.  Still, this fails to work for me on so many levels. 

Put aside, for the moment, your personal position on global warming.  When Bush deliberately cherry-picks from articles which claim that global warming exists only those facts which seem to support the opposite argument, what is he doing with and to the intent of that scientist?  Claiming the intentionalist stance pays rhetorical dividends here, because the audience is likely to believe that, as a straight shooter, Bush wouldn’t cherry-pick details to support a conclusion at odds with the original intent.  And yet he did, and does, day after day.  (I’m not being a partisan here, only saying “He’s a politician.")

Liberals play no faster or looser with intention than conservatives.  I mean, “All men are created equal” was certainly not intended to mean what liberal rhetoric claims it means.  I suppose one of my qualms with this is that this hypocrisy runs so thick with all politicos that I can’t see assigning the conservatives or liberals the philosophical high ground here.  Except, maybe, in rhetorical terms...but even that seems limited to judicial language.  So while the dynamics you see make a sort of general sense at the Headline News-level of political gamesmanship, they quickly break down once the actual behavior of all politicians is examined. 

Not that I want to turn this into a policy discussion, mind you; only that the tropes you identify don’t take us very far in terms of understanding why the intentionalist associations map onto the political/academic-political landscape the way they do.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/05/06 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes - that bothered me too, in supporting such a simplistic cause and effect.

- But in spite of the obvious fact that both sides can, and do, play fast and lose with interpretations, it still seems intuitive, albeit possibly ineffable, that any Conservative prone individual, not just a politician with heightened needs of rhetorical agenda, would find “structuring” meaning flow, and assignation of author ownership, as an absolute to “proper” organization of intentionalism, whereas a more Liberal based thought process would needs must desire “openness” to the process, and less “rigidity” and dogmatic adherence, which could, in some basic way explain, the “emotional subconscious” reaction to discussions of this sort, and why it would seem the contention of authoral ownership” gets a Conservative nod.

By on 06/05/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, John.  I agree that the chess computer example is fatal to K & M and Fish’s strongest claim--that an unintended utterance isn’t language and has no meaning. 

What I’m puzzling over, perhaps needlessly, is whether a less strong, but I think more important claim is equally challenged--that there is such a thing as reading that is not reading for intention.  Yes, certainly, in the sense of recognizing syntax.  And, yes, certainly in artificial languages.  But is there in natural languages?  The fact that intentions are as cloudy as utterances doesn’t, I think, resolve that question--since the issue isn’t whether a question is easy to resolve but where you look to resolve it or what you aim to do in trying resolve it.  The reason it matters that public codes are inherently ambiguous, I think, is, in other words, not that ambiguity is itelf the problem, but that ambiguity demands interpretation and interpretation seems to demand an effort to determine intention. 

Having put it this way, though, I’m not much happy with this position.

By on 06/05/06 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Liberals play no faster or looser with intention than conservatives.  I mean, “All men are created equal” was certainly not intended to mean what liberal rhetoric claims it means.

Hmmm...The Englightenment was a pretty radical shift; but I do understand what you’re saying.  I don’t want to get into a Gordon Woodesque arguement here.

Although I’d like to suggest that slavery helped people like Jefferson better define equality and freedom.  (Edmund Morgan, American Freedom American Slavery.)
--------------

Scott,
Good to know about Michaels.  I’ve run into quite a few people who love his work.  My friends in the English department here are historically oriented.

I’d be curious to know the works/authors that caused Michaels reaction?

By on 06/05/06 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good to see Scott making many of the same arguments I made for me.  That way, at least, they are being considered instead of being dismissed as preposterous (based solely on the fact that I’m making them).  Membership has it’s privileges.

Please, proceed.

By on 06/05/06 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wimsatt and Beardsley published on the intentional fallacy in 1954.* When I was an undergraduate in the late 60s I encountered the example of the Lord’s Prayer showing up inscribed in the sand on a deserted island & I have no idea how old the example was at that time. De Man’s “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism” was published in 1966. Is there anything new in this line of argumentation or is it all a matter of seeing how small we can make the heads of the pins on which we invite these metaphysical angels to dance?

*http://faculty.smu.edu/nschwart/seminar/Fallacy.htm

By Bill Benzon on 06/05/06 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“...[or] is it all a matter of seeing how small we can make the heads of the pins on which we invite these metaphysical angels to dance?

- One mans pinhead is another mans boulder?

By on 06/05/06 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I admit to ignorance of many of the primary sources mentioned in this debate, but it seems to me that some of the disagreement stems from not consistently distinguishing between meaning and reference.

If I encounter a message written on a slip of paper blowing down the street, and I’m competent in a code (i.e. a language) by which that message can be interpreted, then I can say that that message has “meaning”, in the sense that I know of at least one way that it can be translated from one system to another (at the very least, from the encoded version to the decoded version).

However, in order to determine the referential value of the message, I need to know, or at least be able to deduce, all six required elements of the “speech event”—I have the message (the squiggles themselves), the medium (ink on paper), and presumably the code (the language it was written in, though I may not know for sure), but I also need to know the addresser (the writer), the addressee (me?  someone else? everyone? no one?), and the context (when was this written?  why?  was there any previous message it was responding to?).

If the message written on the paper is “He isn’t here”, it certainly has meaning, if by meaning we mean translatability; but we don’t know what was “meant” by it, i.e. the reference.  *Who* isn’t here?  When was that person not here?  Where’s “here”?

So from my point of view, mad libs have meaning but no reference.  Chess notations have meaning, but they have reference only if the game context is known.  Fiction has the apparatus of reference, but decontextualized from the real world and recontextualized to serve an aesthetic rather than referential function.

Judging by what’s been written in this thread, when K & M, or Jeff, talk about “meaning”, they really mean “reference”.  To determine the referential value of a message, if any, it makes sense to privilege the speaker’s intention, because the point of referential communication is for the speaker to communicate the message to the addressee.  Of course, the same doesn’t necessarily hold in the case of aesthetic rather than referential interpretations.

By on 06/06/06 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say that’s very close to what I’ve been getting at, Ken.  I’ve talked about meaning in the context of interpretation, and interpretation in the context of a speech act.

I think you can certainly engage a piece of fiction—or any other complex text—with the idea in mind that you are more interested in its stand-alone aesthetic quality, or historical situatedness compared with other contemporaneous texts, etc.  But those aspects of the text—it’s “literariness, if you will,” doesn’t negate the fact of its signification.  So it’s “meaning” in the context of interpretation is, to use your example, tied to the “who” or the “when” or the “where” in “who isn’t here?”

I tried noting something similar in my response to the “sentence” meaning John Holbo and Searle discuss - namely, that yes, we can make, based on convention, meaning out of the language (though I still believe we need to posit an as if agency to do so); but what we are after from a text as speech act, when we claim to wish to interpret it, is what that originary agency was referencing—or, to put it in terms I’ve been using, what was the original meaning created at the point when the signifiers became signs.

If changing the terminology to use “reference,” makes it clearer, that’s fine by me.  Provided the point remains.  Traditionally, discussion of intention in this arena have used the Saussure two-part sign, but it works just as well to use Peirce.

By on 06/06/06 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ken: Well done!

By on 06/06/06 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To answer John: “Suppose the computer spews out Nd5 - knight to d5.” But this formulation begs the question. Undoubtedly, if the computer’s “Nd5” is algebraic chess notation, it means “knight to d5”. But what, if anything, makes the computer’s “Nd5” algebraic chess notation? For your argument to have the effect you want it to, the answer has to be “the shape of the characters” or something of the sort. But this was exactly the point at issue in the first place. In other words, your argument is circular.

In fact, this claim clearly isn’t true in the case of chess notation. Googling a different move, “Ke4,” I found two pages in the first ten results where this string is used with no relation to chess. I didn’t have similar luck with “Nd5,” at least if you insist on matching cases. But that’s an “accidental” property of “Nd5,” so to speak. And there’s nothing to stop me, or anyone else, from inventing a game, and a system of notation for that game, in which “Nd5” has nothing to do with knights. For all I know, such a game may exist already.

Sean’s point I’ll have to think about a little more.

By Adam Stephanides on 06/06/06 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . I tried noting something similar in my response to the “sentence” meaning John Holbo and Searle discuss - namely, that yes, we can make, based on convention, meaning out of the language (though I still believe we need to posit an as if agency to do so) . . .

What does this mean, “posit an as if agency”?  Case 1: Someone inscribes “free beer, 100 yards to the left beyond the big trees” in the sand on an apparently deserted beach. You come across it, walk 100 yeards to the left, pass the trees, and start drinking your beer.

In this case there really is an agency involved and so the language-like marks are readily and immediately intelligible.

Case 2: Some impersonal and non-living force makes marks that look like “free beer, 100 yards to the left beyond the big trees.” This happens in the sand on an apparently deserted beach.  You happen upon these marks and say to yourself, “looks like writing, but I can’t make any sense out of it.” Your philosopher companion says, “perhaps they are merely marks made by the wind and the waves and you need to posit an agency to read them.” And so you do: “I hereby posit an agency.” The moment you’re done positing the marks become intelligible. Now you’re in a quandry as to whether or not you should check to see if there’s free beer.

In this case there is no agency involved and so you have to posit one before you can read the language-like remarks.

By Bill Benzon on 06/06/06 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill --

I think we’re in agreement.

Positing an “as if” agency means precisely what you outline in Case 2, and indeed what I meant by the term:  I need to look at the marks on the beach “as if” they were “language” posited by some agency—and not simply accidental marks left in the sand—if I’m going to believe that the message they convey is meaningful outside of my own intention to see it as such.  Which is to say, if I am going to get my hopes up about there being free beer 100 yards away, I’m going to have to posit that some giving soul is trying to alert me to that fact, rather than that some cruel accident of wind and tidal shifts is taunting me by making me believe there is really free beer.

But if I’m understanding “sentence meaning,” the idea is that it is enough that these marks look like language to say that they are language, insofar as they can be understood, even without(the argument goes) positing that they were created by some intentional agency.  But though we can certainly garner meaning from such marks, particularly insofar as they resemble a code with which we are familiar, that meaning is always going to be conventional.  And I find that problematic, because we have nothing to appeal to that might account for the entire sentence meaning being potentially ironic, for instance.

But I’m still working my way through John and Sean’s arguments.  Adam’s comment seems to be going down the right road.

By on 06/06/06 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, my point wasn’t circular. Rather, I was pointing out that the dispute about intentionalism concerns the stage at which you think it is necessary, not whether some people think you can have language without some sort of intentionality getting involved at least at the beginning. To put it another way, how is the computer example supposed to function: well, in order to know what ‘Nd5’ means, do you need to think about what the computer ‘intended’? No. You don’t. That’s not circularity, it’s a proof by example.

The ‘as if’ point is also supposed to be well handled by the computer chess example. To know what Nd5 - the move - means, i.e. its significance, its implications, you will probably find it necessary to think of the computer ‘as if’ it is intending to checkmate you. But to know what ‘Nd5’ - the sentence - means, you don’t need to adopt such an ‘as if’ intentional stance. Get it?

In brief response to Jeff: you are proposing that, since we are interesting in what the speech act is all about - i.e. what someone is doing by means of some sentence - then of course we are going to think about ‘intentions’. But this isn’t really the issue in the intentionalism debate. Knapp and Michaels are actually trying to argue that it is quite literally impossible NOT to read for intentions. Their argumenbt is supposed to be a PROOF that “what we are after from a text as speech act, when we claim to wish to interpret it, is what that originary agency was referencing—or, to put it in terms I’ve been using, what was the original meaning created at the point when the signifiers became signs.” So we can’t use the latter claim as a premise, in effect, or as a limiting condition on the scope of the alleged proof.

It may seem picky to insist on this, but it’s rather important. I suspect that Jeff is actually advancing a MUCH weaker thesis than K & M. (That’s a good thing, since weakness is strength, in a case like this. But it’s confusing to have K & M’s arguments tangled up with defense of a thesis they are actually determined to refute as TOO weak.)

By John Holbo on 06/07/06 at 02:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeff—I’m not so sure we’re in agreement. I thought my second case was pretty ridiculous. Here we have someone on the beech, he sees elaborate markings that look like language, but don’t seem to mean anothing. So he says “Shazaan, I posit an agent” and, mirabile dictu! the scales fall from his eyes (or an agent is posited in his mind, whatever) and now he can make sense of the marks. “Free beer! Holy moly hot damn let’s drink!”

It seems to me that in any real situation, the marks are either intelligible or not. Just how they got there is beside the point, though it has implications for any action one takes on the basis of reading those marks. And saying that the reader posits an agency, even an “as if” agency, doesn’t tell us much of anything. It’s simply slapping a complex label on something we don’t really understand. 

* * * * *

Have you thought about <a href = “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA">Eliza? </a>

By Bill Benzon on 06/07/06 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill --

Ah, I see.  I wasn’t sure whether or not you were being serious, since I thought I’d been pretty clear earlier.  Sorry for not catching your tone, though the “philosopher friend” bit did pin my irony meter, I’ll admit.

But that aside:  it’s not that the guy on the beach in the second case you note sees elaborate markings and they “don’t seem to mean anything.” They mean, of course, whatever it is that they seem to him to mean.  But the point is, to borrow your example, that in only one circumstance is there really any chance, outside of a second amazing accident (the first being these elaborate markings that so perfectly mimicked English that they fooled our beachcomber and his companion), that there will be any free beer once the interpreter decides to go looking for it.

And that’s because in one case the elaborate markings are language—and so convey a message that was produced by some agency—whereas in the other case, the markings can only mean what the guy on the beach thinks they mean because he himself has added the signification. 

Or to put it another way, if our pal on the beach sees the markings and finds the beer, he can be pretty certain that the markings were a message created by some agency.  If he doesn’t, he can conclude any number of things—perhaps the message is old and all the beer is gone, perhaps some sadistic native was having fun at his expense, etc.  But another reason there may be no beer is that the message never claimed such.  It simply looked like something that claimed such.

So I don’t think it is beside the point how the marks got there.  Because knowing (or presuming) how they got there tells us something fairly important about what we should presume to do with those marks.

By on 06/07/06 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And THAT’s why I included the “philosopher friend,” to pin your irony meter.

The operation of the neural and mental mechanisms by which one reads does not depend in on how the signs were created. What one does in response to the signs, however, certainly depends on what one believes about the source of the signs. And so forth.

* * * * * *

What bothers me about this whole line of reasoning is that it gets its basic structure from what one Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor governing (much of) our conceptualization of communication. How does communication work? One person puts a message into the conduit, it travels to the other end of the conduit where another person removes the message and acts on it (or not, as the case may be).

That may work for pheromones, but it doesn’t work for language. All that travels between one person and another is a physical signal. But the meaning or intention of the message is not inherent in that signal so that one can extract that message in a way analogous to extracting crude oil from porous rock. Rather, one constructs a meaning for the signal based on one’s own instantiation of the language system. The success of this mechnanism depends both on congruence between the language system of the sender and the language system of the receiver and on their ability to take up any remaining slack through interaction. Just how this works in detail is something of a mystery.

This seems obvious enough. But this whole story of intentions and sentence meaning and propositions, it all pretty much assumes the form given in the conduit metaphor—despite the fact that the conduit metaphor does not accurately convey the mechanisms of lanuage, not even to a first approximation. If we then start thinking about these mechanisms, however mysterious they may be, and begin wondering where we find intentions and meanings and propositions, that’s not at all obvious. Maybe these things arise in discrete components of the mechanism, maybe the are diffuse properties of the whole system. But if you are interested in how these mechanisms work, as I am, worrying about intentionalism doesn’t seem very fruitful.

And interpretation, that’s another one of those mystery words. Is interpreting a literary text like interpreting an X-ray image of someone’s arm, or like reading that person’s future in the lines in the palm of their hand, or is it something else?

By Bill Benzon on 06/07/06 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

this is rubbish :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :(

By on 09/27/07 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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