Holiday weekends are weird in the blogosphere. The more functional members of our community get day passes, while we hardened cases are left to run the asylum. So, what did we fight about while you guys were off barbecuing, jet skiing, petition circulatin', dissertation drafting, or working overtime? Philosophy of language!
I feel like I'm standing knee deep in empty beer cans and used condoms, trying to explain what the hell happened over the weekend.
It all started when Nate made fun of Jeff Goldstein for not knowing who painted the Mona Lisa.
Nate's target was footnote twenty of Goldstein's “You can't spell history without the ‘story’: History and Memory in the Fictive and Imaginary” (punctuation Goldstein's).
20. Would we, for instance, argue that MacBeth, printed in The Riverside Shakespeare, is a different text from MacBeth printed in a Penguin edition? Suppose that each is printed in a
different typeface. The marks, under these circumstances, have been altered, but the signs, we
assume, have remained the same. What allows us to make this claim for verbal texts? If I were,
for instance, to move the Mona Lisa's eyes closer together, no one presumably would claim that I
haven't altered the composition of the Mona Lisa in some way. What is it, then, that makes the
verbal text different in this regard from the non-verbal or iconographical text? In both instances,
intended marks have been altered. But the difference is that in the case of verbal texts, the marks
themselves are not what we consider important. What we do consider important are the signs—
the marks plus their signifieds. And what makes these marks signs to begin with is the intention
to use them as such. My revision of the Mona Lisa certainly has a "meaning"—and it was
clearly intentional. But my meaning is different from the meaning of the original composition,
the meaning intended by its producer Michelangelo. [Emphasis added.]
Some of us a good laugh, including Jane Hamsher, Thersites, and eventually Atrios.
Nate's a mild-mannered philosophy blogger who was shocked when Jeff fired back with this. He was probably utterly perplexed when Goldstein accused Thersites of being drunk. (Don't worry Nate, that's SOP for Goldstein.)
I gather that things got really ugly after I went to bed. It's hard to piece together what happened overnight because of all the subsequent deletions and repostings, but it appears that Jeff or one of his commenters dug up a bunch of personal details about Thersites, his wife, and their kid and posted that information in a thread.
Evidently, an anonymous Goldstein supporter was so worked up that he told Thersites that his two-year-old had cocksucking lips. [Correction: Turns out the cocksucking insinuations preceded the meaning of meaning dustup. My bad. I'm told that while I left the house to see Al Gore's movie, JG reposted Thersites' personal info on his blog. His bad.]
On the morning after, Goldstein surveys the damage.
You probably thinking, wow, that must have been some footnote.
As far as that footnote goes, Jeff is making a pretty straightforward point: Written language is a shared code for expressing thoughts. Readers of English tacitly understand which variations are important to the meaning of sentences. For example, we know that word order is very important to meaning. "The cat is on the mat" means something very different than "The mat is on the cat." Whereas, the meaning of "The cat is on the mat." doesn't change if I reset it in Helvetica or Times New Roman. I can write it in red, double the point size, or sculpt the letters out of clay without changing the meaning of the sentence. It's still about some cat on some mat. Arguably, you can even translate that sentence into a different language without changing the meaning. "Le chat est sur le tapis."="The cat is on the mat." (These are all philosophically loaded assertions, but they're hardly implausible or unusual for philosophers or lay people.)
Codes have rules for distinguishing signal from noise. You can deliver the same message in Morse code with a telegraph, a kazoo, or bursts of yodeling. Someone who knows Morse code also knows that the differences in timbre don't carry any conventionalized differences in meaning. So, they'll get the same message as long as they can discern the information-bearing features of the transmission--the pattern of long and short pulses.
In the footnote, Jeff's point is that paintings don't consist of conventionally agreed-upon codes. So, all the properties of a painting are potentially relevant to its "meaning." He's sloppy to imply that the Mona Lisa has a meaning in the same sense that a declarative sentence does. However, I think that if you construe his point charitably, it's not crazy.
I don't want to tell the literary types their business, but isn't it also sloppy to say that different publisher's editions of Shakespeare's plays have the exact same meaning? Rival scholarly editions of Shakespeare aren't word-for-word duplicates of each other. These editions are shaped by editors' judgments about how to reconcile inconsistent contemporary manuscripts, which modern spelling system to impose (if any), and so on. A better example would have been the same manuscript printed in two different fonts.
Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of that footnote. It's actually the best part of the paper.
The gist of the paper as a whole is this: The only legitimate way to analyze literature is to figure out the author's original intent. I'm not a literary theory type, but Jeff's rule seems absurdly strict and arbitrary.
There are many interesting debates within the philosophy of language about the relationship between the speaker's intentions and the meanings of his or her utterances. However, these aren't really germane to Jeff's argument. He just likes to name drop.
I agree that it would be hard to have an interesting discussion about literature without the background assumption that the work had an author who had some intentions. Maybe s/he wanted to tell gripping story, represent reality, share fantasy, make readers laugh, express feelings, evoke emotions, explore the untapped potential of a genre, react to other works of art, advance a moral argument, get paid, get laid, etc., etc.
Some artists are more calculating than others. Creators have different levels of insight into their craft. Presumably, authors sometimes have intentions that they fail to convey. We know that some works are even more revealing than the author intended. For example, racist themes and assumptions crop up in many works of literature. We can ask whether the author intended to be racist (i.e., whether s/he meant the racially charged content as a putdown, or as a means of legitimizing the social hierarchy, or as propaganda, or whatever). However, even when there's no evidence of intent, can also ask what cultural presuppositions may have informed the author's attitudes, and how a popular work of art with racist themes might have legitimized or perpetuated certain stereotypes.
Jeff allows that the author's unconscious/subconscious intentions are also legitimate objects of literary study. It's hard enough to interpret conscious, overt speech acts. How are you supposed to rigorously reconstruct the unconscious/subconscious motives of an author from a text? Meaning is underdetermined at the best of times. What justification do you have for saying that an author had one unvoiced, unreflective "intention" rather than another? There are always going to be hordes of hypotheses that explain the available evidence equally well.
If you allow for subconscious and unconscious intentions, you allow for the multiplicity of interpretations that intent purists are seeking to avoid. If someone who's strict about authorial intent is willing to entertain theories about the subconscious motives of a creator (which presumably could be at odds with the conscious motives, or internally inconsistent), they're opening the door to all socially, politically, and psychodynamically informed criticism that they were trying to rule out by being authorial intent purists.
It is just a mistake to assume that every aspect of a novel or a play that a reader might imbue with meaning necessarily reflects a straightforwardly interpretable intent by the artist. Unlike the isolated sentences that philosophers of language tinker with, works of literature are aesthetic objects that can't be fruitfully analyzed simply by elucidating the truth conditions of the sentences they contain.
Ultimately, I don't see an a priori reason to assume that all interesting literary questions can be answered by appeal to the author's intentions. In most cases, just there isn't enough evidence. Even in cases where there's a lot of evidence, it's almost impossible to formulate precise hypotheses or test competing claims about an author's intent. So, unless we're prepared to give up on literary analysis altogether, we've got to explain how we can say interesting things about stories/texts without presupposing that we can know exactly what the author intended.
Notwithstanding the fair point raised in the footnote, Jeff's larger argument fails because literary texts are in fact more like paintings and less like the single-sentence examples that most analytic philosophers of language like to model. When you're grappling with a work in full, there is no single consensual storytelling code that enables a reader to distill the author's intent into a series of truth functional claims.
Literary analysis shouldn't be reduced to a guessing-game about what the author intended. You can't distill a single authoritative authorial position paper from a work of art.