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May 30, 2006

What the hell is Goldstein talking about?

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.


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Jeff G, interesting that it was difficult to tell you were using someone else's interpretation of Gadamer (and a clearly mistaken one, at that, but hey...).

I do disagree with your politics, or at least what I can see of them from those notes (again, this little back-and-forth is the first encounter I've had with your writing, so I'm not quite sure what your politics are in general), but that has little to do with the fact that your non sequitur discussion of race misses the point. The point of racial/cultural studies is to approach things from the perspective of the members of a social category, be it a cultural or racial one, and the fact that those categories are generally socially-defined is an incredibly important one in determining what that perspective is, how the culture is affected by surrounding cultures, etc. If you don't think that's a valid project; i.e., if you don't think that some groups, because of the socially-defined space that they occupy, as members of a race or culture, are underrepresented in traditional studies (history, philosophy, literature, etc.), and thus that studying them directly, from "within," is a valid project, that's fine, but nothing you say in your "notes" addresses any of that.

If, as depressingly it may be, this discussion largely is a displaced political argument, so much the worse for politics. It’s true that Goldstein usually shakes his ‘theoretics’ in people’s faces in order to dignify routine attacks on perceived political & pre-political enemies, but the political disagreements themselves largely displace or resolve themselves into something more primordial. Thus the unusual mixture of 3 recurring themes: philosophy of language, vindictive invasions of privacy, & fantasies of sexual humiliation.

Thus also the ignorant-armies-clash-by-LED-light aspect; people with no prior interest in lit. theory barely do a fast Google search (if that) before staking a hooting, thigh-slapping position on the literature. Each side points to the other’s confusion, & the reader is struck less by the merits of the respective positions than the haplessness & psychological condition of the discussants. The hermeneutics of suspicion gives way to the hermeneutics of unmedicated paranoia.

Recall the bit in “Annie Hall” where, after overhearing some guy expound on Marshall McLuhan, Woody Allen produces McLuhan, who tells the guy that he doesn’t understand his ideas? I’m tempted to contact a former teacher, who Goldstein claims as an intellectual hero, to arrange a similar intervention, & not just with Goldstein. Education in lit. theory really seems to have intellectually ruined countless thousands of people of all political persuasions, even normal people. See Frankfurt on bullshit.

When the prospects for productive rational discussion - literary, philosophical, or political - are as poor as they are here, sensible people stop trying.

Jeff G.:

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.

Exactly. There is no way to interpret other than to see things through our own eyes. If you say "dog" and I say "dog" what you mean has been colored by your experience with dogs, and I, mine. As well as any pre-existing difference in our brains (yours, say, may be capable of many more associations than mine.)

Of course Jeff G. acknowledges as much when he allows that unconscious intent on the author's part matter. The unconscious being a metaphor for those motives and feelings and knowledge we didn't know were in our brains. A trapdoor to his argument that allows us to trump the authors stated intent by ascribing ones he wasn't aware of.

But that is not how we form sentences. We consciously form sentences geared to our listeners, even readers we don't know. People who use language to communicate take into account the reader, so why does Jeff G. claim that the reader must not?

And I would like to point out that people who use language don't always (make that never completely, hence Jeff G.'s "unconscious" trapdoor) know what they really want to say. Or they are deceiving. Was the intent of Hamlet to explore [fill in your interpretation here], or was it to bring people to the theater to make money? And if Shakespeare was writing for a certain audience, is it wrong for us to know who he thought he was communicating to, and what their desires and prejudices were?

And as for the arguments about the text of Shakespeare signifying the same thing, though written in different fonts, etc. while a change in the Mona Lisa would be seen as such. False.

The Mona Lisa ages. The colors change, we still call it the Mona Lisa. A piece flakes off, we still call it the Mona Lisa. It is restored, Mona Lisa. It is photographed and displayed on a Macintosh, Mona Lisa. It is displayed on a PC, Mona Lisa. Etc, etc.

We cannot tell that a single object is the same to all of us. And we can't say from one moment to the next it is the same object to any of us, for certain. The idea that the generalizations, like "dogs" has a fixed meaning is not true. And to think that a large number of related sentences has some fixed meaning, I doubt any authors would even claim that. Most, I suspect, are secretly pleased that more meaning than they wrote in was found by the critics.

Only people who care more about politics (and thus need fixed meanings to know friend from foe) than philosophy think that the only meaning we should take from a text is what is put in there.

As any parent could tell you, children often say, and intend, one thing, and their parents, correctly read another meaning into the words. Reading the comments pertaining to this dust-up, I would hope that most of the posters are still at the stage where they are receiving more parenting than they are giving.

This whole "authorial intent" thing is soooo tired ...

Literary works aren't sentences, they aren't propositions, they aren't messages. If Thomas Pynchon had been trying to send a message with Gravity's Rainbow, he would've done a helluva lot better to've used Western Union.

What Woolf "meant" in writing To the Lighthouse is a matter for biography, not for literature.

Otherwise, the chief utility of the "authorial intent" game is to have a basis for declaring "interpretations" (loosely speaking) right or wrong. Which has an understandable appeal to a certain type of cock-slapping-across-the-face English professor.

Finally, DB and others continue to suggest that intentionalists don't recognize that readers have a role in textual studies that go beyond authorial intent. This is not the case. All I am arguing is that, if we wish to say we are intepreting rather than creating or augmenting (and so making new, distinct texts), we must appeal to authorial intent.

Actually, what I continue to suggest is that "intentionalism" is made-up rubbish to which no one has ever subscribed outside of biblical fundamentalists and right-wingers determined to do away with reasonable judges on the grounds that they're "activists." I also continue to suggest that J Goldstein has fantasized this crap because he is pathologically invested in the authority of a writer--authority which he may subsequently claim as a "fiction writer" but also apparently, as a blogger who will stop at nothing--not even leaving thousand word diatribes in the comments section of every post about this fabricated crap--to try to ensure that everyone in all of cyberspace speaks in his voice.

I will say again: intentionalism as Goldstein defines it is not an "ism" with a history. To the extent we can call it an "ism" it would have to be "Goldsteinism" (so that he is singularly responsible for all its b.s.) or perhaps "byproduct-of-paste-ingestion-ism."

By the way, I see that Thersites has deleted his blog. Would it be going too far to suggest that JG do the same?

(If it was not YOU, then the comment was not directed at YOU. If no one at PW wrote the comment, then that comment was not directed at anyone at that site.) I also apologized to Thers for escalating the situation.

geoduck, YOU keep claiming that it was made by a PW commenter. Given Thirsty's underhandedness, cowardice and his refusal to provide the offending IP, it's reasonable to infer, and in fact I'd bet good money, that your hero offended himself as a way to get out from under the dismantling he was undergoing for having flashed his ass.

You seem to have the kid raped and pregnant by now, which it seems has all occurred in your head. It's the text, plus your "social context".

You need a good shrink and some new friends, lady.

You need a good shrink and some new friends, lady.

Sorry, Pablo, we're not the swingers-club type.

Oh lordy, save me from the paste-eaters.

I have a cunning plan that cannot fail. Pablo should go debate with Dawn Eden. Maybe they can talk about contracepting marriages, or something.

This whole shitstorm could have been averted if Jeff had just posted a correction and shrugged it off--or just let it the fuck go. Nah. Better to aspirate on your own spittle and throw a tantrum.

Ahh, so Goldstein is just another lame racial supremacist trying to justify their bigotry with bogus rationalizations? Gotcha.

We can only hope that Goldstein will OD on Klonopin and drown in his own vomit. It warms my heart just to think about it.

"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."

Lindsay, this is basically an indicator of context filtering translation.

The premise of GB is flawed, one of those reasons being because he cherrypicks context.

"A text that actually had a single meaning that belonged to authorial intent would be shallow and boring."--Gary

...but No Child Left Behind, Clean Air Initiative, et al are statements that stand on their own. Can we not legislate philosophy, for instance in judicial nominees like John "AIDS" Roberts?

Didn't he clown around with a discussion of intent for a CSpan presentation aired during or after his hearings? Is Golburg's entire argument backwash from that episode?

So the author didn't mean what he said when he said it, only he can determine intent? No wonder GWB was disappointed that news of Haditha was reported. Bring 'Em On!

See how easy it is to refute the truth with one liners? "Facts are stupid things."

"There's no need to be certain that we've arrived at the writer's exact intent, as that's largely impossible, but the important thing is we seek what was meant, rather than simply attributing to a writer what we see." --ss

Who am I going to believe, your 'interpreter' or my lying eyes? So regardless of the fact he throws out arguments that don't logically support his own conclusions, we need to go forward and accept the conclusion as valid?

"I'd die for more of that dessert." This is not an invitation to homicide, if you got an email suggesting this would you then post person's name and address and hint that person may deserve to come about unnatural causes?
"Barthes, for the "death of the author" widely used to signal, well, the death of intentionalism;"--JG

Well in context you speak of an author's death, then list the personal contact info of someone who authored a reply in a blog comment, and two people who did not.

Your context is of death, the author's death ends semantic discussion over their intent, and then complain of someone misleading from your intent and list the author's contact information.

Well that's a fogged, gray argument for inciting an outcome.

No matter where the person was from who put the words into the thread, the fact was you villified an individual and outed in a way that could very much be taken as intent of harm. Such invective flavored that response from whoever the idiot fearmonger whappens to be.

"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. " --Lindsay

Exactly, intent analyses become self defeating in terms of the starting argument.

A priori statements within social context often have different meaning from intention in terms of direct consequence.

Still the most direct means of talking towards a point seem to develop a better understanding of intent. Applied to what was posted on his blog JG could be seen as petty in going after persons in that way. He does not list the contact info of his supporters and their personal lives and employment places. If his original intent was as righteous as claimed why is there no uniform treatment of identity as it pertains to comments on all subject matter?

The Wen Ho Lee decision places upon media the obligation to uphold fiscal incentive towards liability concerns. If JG had his way Thers would be humiliated and removed a job, he best keep in mind the same precedent.

Tolerance on the left:

We can only hope that Goldstein will OD on Klonopin and drown in his own vomit. It warms my heart just to think about it.

People like you suck.

Who said that? Or did you just make it up?

"Thesaurus Rex." Four comments up. You should probably read your own comments before accusing people of makign stuff up.

Although how that somehow becomes the responsibility of the whole "left" I have no idea.


You call this journalism. You've sunk to a new low. Every day it gets worse. "How low can you go?" Lindsay, you are no journalist, no way, no how. You bite, suck and blow. If you want to be a journalist, write me. I doubt you will because you are a reporter, not a journalist. Report the BS, tell the truth. C Unt

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