Thursday, October 18, 2012

Intention and Meaning in Literary Criticism: Or, Another Run at Harman

“Classically,” if I may, intention has been invoked in discussions of literary theory as a necessary supplement to the physical sign, or more exactly, the physical signifier. In his 1967 Validity in Interpretation E. D. Hirsch talks of finding “A slumber did my spirit seal” inscribed in beach sand. Is it really Wordsworth’s poem or is it just an empty, albeit incredible, simulacrum of the poem?

That depends on how those marks got there. If they were placed there by a being capable of the proper sort of intentions, such as a human being, then it’s Wordsworth’s poem. But if they got there through operations of the wind and waves, or the operation of intentional beings of the improper sort (e.g. worms crawling about), then, no, they don’t constitute Wordsworth’s poem. They have no (proper) intention and thus have no meaning.

Well, this sort of thing has generated a great deal of discussion (e.g. Knapp and Michaels, “Against Theory”, 1982), and continues to do so, see, for example, this 2007 post by Joseph Kugelmass at my old stomping grounds, The Valve, which is in turn linked to posts by the redoubtable John Holbo. I don’t want to reprise those arguments.

Rather I wish first to reduce them to a crude and simple formula, then run some variations on that reduction. After that I offer a supplement to that formula, and go on from there to address, once again, Graham Harman’s recent article in New Literary History: “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism” (vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 183-208, 2012).

Reduction and Variations

The reduction is simple:
intention + text = meaning
By text I mean nothing more than a string of signifiers. They could take the material form of pencil or ink marks on paper, sound waves in air, carvings in stone, whatever. It’s just stuff, no more, no less.

Given that, the classical position is that the writer’s intention determines the meaning of a work of art. This can be amended to include unconscious as well as conscious intention. Thus we have intentionality, on the one hand, and the physical substance of the work on the other. Both are supplied by the artist.

Critics, however, have pointed out that intention is not some wine-like substance that the artist pours into the work, from which the viewer or reader or listener, as the case may be, drinks it—to borrow a metaphor from Paul de Man’s now classic essay “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism” (which is the second piece in Blindness and Insight, 1983). The intention that a reader, viewer, or listener finds in the work is the intention with which they invest its physical substance.

Critics have also located intention in various nebulous social forces. Somehow those forces become distilled and titrated into the text where they shape and manipulate the minds of helpless readers.

In every case we have the text, marks in some medium, and intention, which is invested in some agent, whether individual (writer or reader) or collective. The interior workings of this agent are never described in any detail. For the most part they’re variously derived from psychoanalysis, structural linguistics and semiotics, Marxist social theory, and the philosophical reflections and redactions thereof.

Supplementation and Practical Criticism

Those inner workings constitute my supplementation to our crude formula, thus:
(intention + inner workings) → text = meaning
We can gloss that as: intention plus inner workings is applied to the text to yield meaning. We can quibble about the order and grouping, but there’s not much point to it. It doesn’t matter for my argument.

What I’m suggesting is that intention has always functioned as a proxy for a whole bunch of mental and social mechanisms about which we know relatively little. When making an abstract philosophical argument in and about critical theory those mechanisms need not be mentioned. They’re irrelevant to the general argument.

But not when it comes to practical criticism, not when you have to investigate a text or body of texts to determine their meaning. Then you need something beyond the mere notion of intention to get your work done. At this point, in fact, intention is often taken for granted, though not entirely so. If, for example you’re arguing for authorial intention you may invoke biographical and contextual information and even specific statements the author has made about the text in question. But for the most part, intention is tacitly assumed. The major work of explication will be done in psychoanalytic, Marxist, poststructuralist, or whatever terms.

Harman’s OOO Criticism

Now we can turn to Harman’s approach to literary criticsm. Let’s reprise a passage from his reply to Green:
...I think the literary text is something deeper than its current holistic configuration in the form of how the author chose to publish it, or the best available scholarly version of a text available at any given moment, or whatever is usually taken to be the real text. ... In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place. Most of them should have written better texts. Just as social surroundings fail to exhaust a literary work, the exact written form of a literary work fails to exhaust the deeper spirit of that work. My article proposed the rudiments of some methods to get at that deeper spirit.
It seems to me that, in tossing out authorial intention, Harman not only tosses out ALL intention, but the inner workings that have always trailed along as instruments of practical criticism.

And he replaces those with what? With the “deeper spirit” of the work. What pray tell IS that?

Harman has nothing to say about it. There’s nothing in his theory to tell a critic what to look for. It’s an empty notion, this deeper spirit that is little more than the ghost of Platonisms past.

This is hardly an auspicious way to take a bold step into a new intellectual era.

* * * * *

Two related posts:

1 comment:

  1. Deeper spirit meets deeper objects in a performative reality: it exists because I declare its existence.