Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The intentional fallacy

Bennet and Royle spend a lot of their first chapter talking about origins and beginnings. Which is fair enough, you have to start somewhere. They touch briefly on the intentional fallacy. I'm rather hoping that they go into in detail somewhere further down the track. The intentional fallacy, as best as I can tell runs along the lines of it is not possible for an author to imbue their work with a "real" meaning, the reasoning being that meaning is created when a reader reads the text and thus the author has no control over the meaning that is taken. And because the meaning always emerges when the text is read, there can always be another interpretation as the work is read anew. I don't like it. I don't like it I say. When someone attempts to find the real meaning of the text, they are apparently "seeking the origin of the text in the author consciousness". An overly flowery way of saying that the reader is seeking the meaning of the text that the author put there*.

Each text that is created owes something to a number of previous works - "Literary texts are always constructed in by and within a context or tradition". The ideas that a writer uses aren't necessarily completely their own, they are are developed as part of whatever tradition they are are developed in. Bennet and Royle take this to mean that it is impossible to know the authors thoughts, since you have no way of knowing which thoughts belong to the author and which thoughts to those that influenced the author. Thus it's impossible to seek the origin of the text in the authors consciousness - it doesn't exist. According to them. I don't see it to be perfectly honest. It implies that it is possible to own an idea - something that is fine for today's intellectual property lawyers, but not for me. And besides, for the purposes of this theory it doesn't matter who owns the ideas or where they originally sprang from, what matters is that the author has put the idea within the text. The author, whether they where the first people to think the thought they are putting in a text, wishes to convey a meaning. As best I can see, this is one of the things that help create the set of possible meanings that a reader may extract from a particular reading. The reader, the environment, the media, I imagine will all help create the set of possible meanings. Notice though, that while the author may have no further part in determining the meaning of the text, their intent remains a part of it the process, they set down the first set of possible meanings that a reader may draw out.

The other part of the fallacy is that since a text can have new meanings drawn from a new reading, that there can never be a "conclusive meaning" - that is that the text means one thing and one thing only, all other interpretations are wrong.  Depending on how you define a what is a "correct" or "incorrect" meaning, there is a case to be made for saying it is not possible to know the correct meaning of a text. At first, I took this to be a different from saying that there couldn't be a correct or incorrect meaning. The more I think on this though the more I wonder if it's even a sensible question to ask. Someone would have to give the text meaning, upon reading someone would have to judge that is was the (or a) correct meaning. Correct for who? If you can't say that a person is correct, I don't how you can say that they are incorrect either. Which means that talking about a correct or incorrect meaning of a text in the way that Bennet and Royle put it, is nonsensical. Not even wrong as Pauli would say. The best a reader can do is read a text and take a meaning from it, that may be forged from a combination of author input, the environment, the media and the reader themselves.

Even if it wasn't a nonsensical question, it hasn't been shown that a text could not have a single correct meaning. Unknowable maybe, not necessarily non-existent though. To say that no text exists or can exist with a single correct meaning with all other meanings taken from it being wrong, is a universal statement. Which can't be proven and would only take a single counter example to disprove. It would require going though every text that could exist and showing that it does not have a single correct meaning. You can say to the best of our knowledge no text has a single correct meaning, if you had some (sensible) way of figuring out what was correct or not, which is entirely different. If such a thing as correctness existed, it's entirely possible that a text with a single correct meaning is currently sitting in the library.

All of which leads me to conclude that all the fuss around the intentional fallacy is a lot of puff used to dress up a simple concept. Namely: read carefully, there may be more than one meaning that can be taken from this text. Text is an imprecise method for the transmission of knowledge. The author is involved, so is the reader, both of which are affected by other texts and the world around them. Rather than talking about correctness I wonder if time would be better spent wondering whether a meaning taken from a text is sensible or not. I'm sure at some point that this will lead on to the concept that the author is "dead"** with respect to the text as soon as they finish writing it, which I disagree with, better to say they are immortal. I'm open to being swayed but that's pretty much how I see it at the moment.

*There's a fair whack of what I'm sure Oscar Wilde would call pretentious language here. It's not intensely pretentious, but there is a lot of it.
**See, this is something a I hate about English theory books. The jargon they use tends to be common words used in a manner in which a group "in the know" know, but which confuses the crap out of everyone else. At least in science, the jargon is obviously jargon and you can go look up what it means. 

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