Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The images are symbolical

I was much struck recently by a young lady I was tutoring who gave the right answer when confronted with a question from an old "Practical Criticism" paper; that is, a verse was quoted, and she was to spot the date of it, giving her reasons. Sure enough, she found the images showed that this bit was late eighteenth-century; but what the examiners would not have found out was that she had no idea what the verse was saying. It urged you to carry out one of those terrific pieces of landscape gardening, cutting away the side of a hill, digging a lake, planting a forest, to improve the prospect from your country house. She thought the verse was only pictures of scenery, because she never bothered with verbs; to answer questions in the examination you only needed the images. I do not think you could really get through on this plan, but some people think you can. When the examination question says "Evaluate the following poem," the student will happily write down, "Significantly, the images are symbolical." What they signify, or what they symbolize, he does not say; he considers that if he did he would look low-class and philistine.
-William Empson, Argufying, 167


...let's just get this straight: we're in the middle of an "economic downturn" (i.e. a depression) caused by unregulated Wall Street speculation, and are seriously talking about extending tax cuts to the wealthiest 1% of people in the nation, placing a freeze on pay increases for government employees, reducing the deficit overall, and (in local politics) cutting back on major infrastructural improvements that would employ new workers (the ARC tunnel) as well as help the poor schmoes who each have 2 hour commute into the city.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This is symbolic...

A golden MST3K moment I'm always going to remember whenever I get the temptation to interpret something as a symbol:

In The Castle of Fu-Manchu, three characters get a notice they have to return to London. Cut to: the train scene above. Crow (on the right, if you're not familiar with the best show ever) says: "This is symbolic of their return to London."

(Another gem from the always way-too-smart MST3K fans, that I stumbled upon recently: summarizing the plot of the horrible Time of the Apes, one writes, "a plot device transports a woman and two kids to a time when apes rule.")

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wimsatt's Law

I've been thinking a lot about the intentional fallacy, especially after trying to explain it to my students under the assumption it would get them to write more about the narrative and less about the author's design--and finding it not really helpful.

This, by the way, is now how I do literary theory: if something breaks down in the process of teaching, there's probably something wrong with it. Of course before questioning it you first question your methods and how you explained it etc., but the teachability of the thing is still a real good indicator about what needs to be adjusted in a theory. The function of pedagogy here (to pick up on my last post) is not entirely critical, in the sense of performing a critique of the theory in question: the proof works both ways, and often you know how right a theory is because it feels right when you teach it, makes intuitive sense to people. This is why, even if we refuse to be formalists, we are always in a sense practical critics when we teach: we're not out to split hairs about things, ultimately, even if we're out to multiply meaning; we're not out for what might seem wrong but beneath the surface of things is right--like a philosopher. This is why the high theory of the 80's, it seems, sometimes hits brick walls in the classroom: it's often trying too hard to be impractical, to make the stakes all-or-nothing, as they indeed are in philosophy (except there, this also makes for good classes).

Indeed, it's the practical context itself that is oddly missing from the theory of the intentional fallacy. It makes no sense to say that an author's intention is not "available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art" as Wimsatt and Beardsley put it (in The Verbal Icon, 3), except as a sort of thought experiment that opens up some space for discussion. And that's, of course, what the statement did: as a sort of postulate, it further solidified the nature of the classroom space in which one finally could encounter a work, something that outlives the intentions of its author. That is, it encouraged a type of discussion that was truer to the way a genuine encounter with a literary text works: one that doesn't try to search back to the origin of the work in the author's head in order to make sense of what is said or meant or indeed even intended, but instead just construes the meaning then and there. So it works as an axiom, you could say.

Except it isn't stated like an axiom. Empson mockingly called it "Wimsatt's Law," most hilariously in his later book on Using Biography (a very significant title in this context) to make this clear--and he's right:

Any such work [like what I'm doing in this book] is excluded by the Wimsatt Law [...] which says that no reader can ever grasp the intention of an author. This paradox results from a great failure to grasp the whole situation. Any speaker, when a baby, wanted to understand what people meant, why mum was cross for example, and had enough partial success to go on trying; the effort is usually carried on into adult life, though not always into old age.
-Using Biography, vii.

Indeed, he's right about more than one thing in this wonderfully deadpan statement, as I'll try and say later sometime. But the point is that once you start treating it as an axiom, you are actually altering the theory, and you can't really pretend otherwise.

Because, as Empson makes clear, the theory doesn't ultimately say that an author's intentions should not determine the course of your reading and discussion of the thing. It says, "no reader can ever grasp the intention of an author." It doesn't exactly say this, of course, as we already saw, but Empson's paraphrase is, I think, pretty right. It certainly makes clear--as paraphrases should do, but often precisely avoid--the implications of the argument, how it is skewed.

There's an indecision, first of all, between what's "available" and what's "desired," and it's clear that the emphasis falls, despite appearances, on the second word: the first is there to cover their bases so they can get to the real point. You see what happens when the theory is softened: the stress falls back upon "available." And perhaps if they would have said just "available," that would have been fine. This is truer to the literary encounter, and actually opens up neat questions about how far our "reach" is while reading, if we fail to reach back to the author: it's not just that we can't find some statement about the intention of the author, or that the author isn't there with us in the classroom (though Wimsatt and Beardsley probably actually only mean "available" in the first, very literal sense, if I can speculate upon their intention for a second), but that when we read we can't really find a plausible, author-like intention there--the words come in sentences, flow forth from that, and don't come shooting one by one from the mind of someone to you like invisible bullets (to move from Greenblatt to Derrida, there's a nice description of this telepathic fantasy, more often engaged in discussions of communication than you'd think, in Of Grammatology).

But if in practice you warn people about the unavailability of intention--which is what I'm suggesting most people do anyway in warning about the intentional fallacy--you still go wrong, because it's not just the stress on that authoritative, tensed "desired" (barely qualified, in truth strengthened by the "even") that is the problem with the theory: it's the way both words, and the indecision between them, are required. In other words, what's wrong with the theory is that it makes the indecision in this phrase work in its favor: it's the gap between what is available and what is desired in an interpretation that is always negotiated in the act of reading, and Wimsatt and Beardsley conveniently let the connection between the two remain blank, acting as if what is available is only what's most immediately around you, and what's desirable is just a preference, something not taken seriously. How, in other words, does the unavailability of the author's intention actually get us to the conclusion that consulting that intention, seeking it out sometimes, or even speculating upon it, actually is undesirable in interpretation?

It doesn't, is the answer. I just stumbled upon a nice discussion on the intentional fallacy right after my class, where things are put straight:

Wmsatt and Beardsley were no doubt too extreme in their suggestion that knowledge of an author's intention is "neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." Often unavailable, often interesting, quite often misleading, and always insufficient as a critical measure, would be closer.
-Michael Wood, Yeats and Violence, 96.

That is indeed closer. And it's important to say why we have to rethink this:

[T]here is something wasteful and disagreeable about not wanting to know what writers thinking they are doing, and about the accompanying assumption that critics know better. It doesn't seem implausible that writers often achieve what they intend and that their intention has something to do with their achievement. If I find enormous subtleties in a literary work, chances are the writer put them there. The subtle mind at play is the writer's rather than mine. I'm doing what I'm can but I'm just following clues, not placing them.
-Yeats and Violence, 97.

I think its that "accompanying assumption" that is most dangerous about Wimsatt's Law, and, also, most useful. It is important in the history of literary criticism that this theory was put in way it was put, I think, since critics do have important things to say and authors indeed never say anything really sufficient for critical purposes about the work they are doing. But the kids in my class cringed at something when I explained the thing to them (even in the chaster version I sort of outlined above), and I could see in their faces not only their lament of the wastefulness of it all but something really skeptical of this self-serving aspect. We aren't at cross purposes, authors and critics, and some of the serious marginalization of literature might be attributed to the critical assumption that we are. The case for our role in the work is put better just after the last remark above: "We don't have to suspect them of lying," Wood says, "but neither can we assume they are immune to the ordinary frailties of human self-knowledge" (97). And the purposes of criticism aren't predatory upon this, so much as in the same boat with those of the author, at least insofar as both are trying to articulate something sufficient about what happens when that author is read.

But if Wood has a sounder theory of intentionality and its role in criticism, what can we now say about Wimsatt and Beardsley's theory? A theory that, ultimately, would make the court of appeal the cogency of the explication of the critic (see Wimsatt's wonderful later essays on what he calls "explicitation" for a concise summary of this), rather than, as Wood rightly goes on to put it, language--or, even better, the words themselves?

I think that in the end what the theory of the fallacy is trying to do is make possible what it presupposes, the strange afterlife of words when read and discussed. And what's crucial to remember (and Wood reminds us of this, since he is really out to get at this afterlife) is that this is actually a very different task than deciding upon the role of intention--though intention is obviously a way into the question. In other words, Wimsatt and Beardsley are trying to explain something like that "perpetual present" of a preserved verbal utterance, which allows us, when we come to a work, to actually pick apart its meanings as if we were construing the sense of the thing right there before us. Indeed, we are doing this, and we are able to do it more easily if we disregard authorial intention, since it makes us cease to think of the words as faded historical entities, exhausted in their meaning as soon or right after they are written down. For words aren't historical like this: they slip through history strangely, as if on a different sort of time-scale, and so are able to confront us in an act of reading with startling immediacy, at the same time as others are able to carry a fog about them, a distance of sorts. Wimsatt and Beardsley seem to have this particularly in their sights as they discuss the fallacy, no doubt because they are waging a war against philology (and, of course, we're all on their side except Paul de Man here, who would rather return to it), and seem to want to make this encounter more recognizable, and thus more likely to happen.