Intent and Experiment

While working this afternoon on a translation of Kafka’s Das Urteil—the last I shall at­tempt for a while, as I find translating distracts me from reading—I received a gift in the form of further reflections on Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws”. I must obey the gods, so here is a second post on that essay. It comes in the form of a reflection on the intentional fal­lacy. Almost everything I know about the academic debate about intentionalism, I know from Noël Carroll’s very able defense of intentionalism in Beyond Aesthetics. I am also no doubt informed by Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” (from Must Me Mean What We Say), two wonderful texts whose content I have almost en­tirely forgotten, but whose effects I hope stick with me still.

Debate over the intentional fallacy is a bit of meta-discourse about the practice of interpretation: at stake is the way in which we go about interpreting texts. Intentionalists (such as Carroll) say that we should be guided, for the most part, by the author’s intent. What was she trying to say with the work? How did she intend it to operate? Interpretation should uncover the answers to such questions; thereby we attain understanding of the work. Against this, there are those, once led by Cleanth Brooks and W.K. Wimsatt, who argue that it is a fallacy to see interpretation as beholden to the author’s intent—they label this the intentional fallacy. Instead, interpretation should stick to the work itself, and deal only with what is present therein. I shall call Brooks and company “fallacists”, as I find the word fun to say.

In a sense I think this is a non-debate. We should ask what is the goal of interpretation. Intentionalists and fallacists will no doubt agree that the goal is either truth, understanding, or both. As I see it, intentionalists strive to be true to the author’s intent, while fallacists strive for truth to the work itself. This may lead to clashes, for what one finds in the work may not be what the author intended, but are such clashes to be resolved by matters of more than taste? I am not so sure.

Yet I do want to raise some problems, inspired by Emerson’s essay, about intentionalism and fallacism in turn. What happens if we see works, texts, as experiments? In my post from earlier today I discussed at length the relation between experiments and theories about what one is doing. As Emerson puts it, “There is less intention in history than we ascribe to it.” (306) If works are not aimed at producing some specific result, foreseen in advance, but experimental inquiries aimed at finding out what will happen, then there may be no intent to be had. Intent, in such a scenario, is something added on after the fact: ah, so I accomplished this? Very well, that is what I intended! Intentionalists would then be groping in thin air, attempting to construct a theory of the work that mirrors that of the artist—yet the artist has no such theory. In such a case, intentionalism is genuinely a fallacy.

Is this a victory for the fallacists? I do not think so. Just as the intentionalists falsely assumed that the existence of an intent to which they could be true, the fallacists falsely assume the existence of a self-sufficient work which they might be true. Not so. “What can we see or acquire, but what we are? You have observed a skillful man reading Virgil. Well, that author is a thousand books to a thousand persons. Take the book into your two hands, and read your eyes out; you will never find what I find.” (314) The work itself is unfinished until it contacts a reader, a conversational partner, with whom it may engage in a joint experiment. What are the effects of this work? A senseless question until we specify the recipient of its effects. The work exists to be encountered, and once encountered, it is permissive, willing to travel alongside its partner down innumerable paths.

Interpretation, on this view, aims neither at truth-to-intent nor truth-to-the-work, but at fidelity to one’s own experience. It is the faithful recording of the results of the experiment—just as was the original work. Indeed, the best interpretation should be a work in its own right, should produce effects as difficult to foresee as those of the original work. Do not settle for transmitting bland truths that anyone may find. The best interpretation offers itself up for a thousand encounters as intense as that from which it grew. Else it has no business being written. And, though it should go without saying, we cannot expect or enforce a foolish consistency across repeated encounters of a single work by a single individual.

Now I must confess to a sleight of hand. I have not undermined either intentionalism or fallacism, not really. For authors and artists are not blind in their creations. They do have intent as they create—vindication for the intentionalist—and they do produce self-standing works—vindication for the fallacists. The question of how to interpret such works remains open—I have contributed nothing to answering it—so long as the task of interpretation in the classic sense remains one we consider worthwhile. And therein lies my real purpose, my real intent as it were: to suggest that perhaps this classic task of interpretation is not an important one. It is a choice, so far as I can see, whether to treat of works in the manner of intentionalists and fallacists, or whether to treat of them in a more experimental manner. I urge the latter. Interpretation becomes words about words, and soon enough words about words about words. Better, to my taste, acts upon acts. I have called these acts upon acts “interpretations”, but I needn’t have. Perhaps I would have been better off following Deleuze and Guattari when they praise experimentation over interpretation. In any event, I look for encounters. I value effects over understanding.

What effects—I do not know. Not yet.

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