Intentionalist Wars

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Art, Culture, Literature, Politics

For awhile now I’ve been meaning to write about Jeff Goldstein’s dustup with Thersites.

The whole thing started with Jeff’s online publication of an academic paper he wrote. Apparently Thersites is a professor, and he takes offense to Jeff’s insistence on the intention of the author being privileged when interpreting the author’s work. The post series (on Jeff’s site) is here, here, here, here, here, and here. I’m pretty much in agreement with intentionalism as the only coherent way to read a text. Simultaneously, I don’t find intentionalism terribly fulfilling as an interpretive philosophy — It’s a starting point, not an ending point.

This is probably not terribly interesting or engaging unless you’ve been following this issue yourself. Unfortunately I can’t really do justice to the subject matter in short, so it boils down to turning this into a drama between talking heads. The shocking climax of this sordid tale is that things eventually ballooned into Thersites deleting his blog. It’s not often that you see an opponent in an intellectual debate so thoroughly destroyed that he completely abandons his online persona and blog.

Some more thoughts of mine below the fold…

Here’s the greater part of a comment I left over on Jeff’s blog dealing with my own reservations about Intentionalism, and how I struggle with the concept — Intentionalism as a philosophy is simply descriptive of any sensible person’s reading: Someone wrote something; if you want to figure out what it means you try to divine intent from the encoded signifiers. I feel there is so much more ground that could be covered with regards to interpretation, and yet I am not certain we can truly build in that space. The only real promising sort of analysis is to examine individual works and build by consensus an explication of the author’s intentions.

Perhaps I’m just expecting too much from what this form of inquiry can provide, and I need to look elsewhere to find out how, in concrete terms, intent is so reliably conveyed between the ‘speaker’ and the ‘listener’. Neuroscience may have some interesting things to contribute. Recently, for example (and I apologize for not having a link), I remember reading a study of how the brain handled reading and reacting to other emotional cues. If I recall correctly, the brain in effect attempts to mimic the emotional state that may trigger a specific facial expression. There was also a study about a year (?) ago about how the brain is capable of deciphering, with little or no slowdown, scrambled words so long as the first and last letters are intact; this suggests that the brain is largely capable of extrapolating the likely direction of a thought even when the symbols used to convey them are incomplete or jumbled.

I suspect, if we were able to visualize the process of interpretation, that the brain actually does a lot of extraordinarily complex modelling of the potential mental states of the author (using the self as the frame of reference, naturally) and derives intent from what is essentially a mock-up of the author’s mental states compared against key mental states indicated by a symbolic code(ie, communication). In a sense this is like the emulation of another operating system within a given operating system. My impression is that the brain is largely able to fill-in and correct jumbled communications because once a sufficient amount of the code has been deciphered we’re able to model the mental states of the speaker so well that we can subconsciously determine the “inertia” of a given thought pattern. Confusing code (in the form of jumbled or incorrect symbols) is predicted according to this path, deciphered, used to assess whether the n-1 model state was correct or not, and then rejected or confirmed.

This model suggests to me a strong link between facility at interpretation and sympathy/empathy, which I would argue is largely born out by women’s overall verbal and emotional aptitude. It also makes sense to me in how literature is frequently talked about or reacted to—When reading literature from outside of our immediate experience we [ought to] try to place ourselves in the perceived experience of the author by learning about the history of that environment. On the flip side, if we come to a book with expectations of finding the author to be a bigoted bourgeois oppressor our mental model of authorial mental states is going to be similarly crude and confirmation bias will prevail.

I also feel that a lot of the “struggle” I see in of modern literary criticism supports this idea. There aren’t many so-called theorists that I’ve read (granted, I’m not widely read in this field) that actually try to completely decouple symbols from intent—To do so would be self defeating, as without intent symbols are no longer symbols at all. It seems more likely to me that the goal is to twist the mental model the critic creates of the author into completely untenable but ingenious mental knots while still managing to draw blood from the stone, so to speak, of the text. The more convoluted the mental model of the author it requires to grasp the interpretation of the symbolic code the better. I suppose this all is intended as some sort of status display and fitness indicator, but from the looks of things it’s one whose evolutionary cost has grown too high.

Note that I am not a neuroscientist, literary theorist, or any other -ist that would grant me more than tangential credibility on this subject matter. Grains of salt required.

I’d be curious what the guys over at Gene Expression might be able to say about this.

Ultimately you have to wonder what started academics down the road of casting off intentionalism (since intentionalism is, for all intents and purposes, the status quo of all animals and people, lest they delude themselves otherwise). Was it the lack of humility and a desire to privilege their own intellectual play?

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