Thursday, October 29, 2015

Authorial Intention in Literary Study, an Informal Note

Why have literary critics been so concerned about authorial intention? I say “have been” because these discussions were most vigorous back in the 1960s and 1970s, but now are not so important – though the issue is central to Joseph Carroll, the Darwinian critic.

One might think it was about how one reasons to an interpretation of a work. That’s certainly how it seemed back in the 60s and 70s. But I don’t believe that any more. For one thing, there are a few important cases where an appeal to the author has little traction. How do you appeal to the author of Iliad or Odyssey? We don’t know who Homer was, if indeed he was a single individual. While we do know who Shakespeare was – I give no credence to the arguments that Shakespeare was someone else – we know so little about him that an appeal to Shakespearean plausibility is little more than an appeal to the Elizabethan world view. And then in one peculiar and particular case where we know a great deal about the author – I’m thinking about Coleridge and “Kubla Khan” – critics feel free to ignore or reason away the one thing he told us about the text, that it is incomplete.

As a practical matter, whatever else we might know about a given author, whatever materials we might have – drafts, correspondence, essays, whatever ¬– the text itself is going to be out best source of evidence. The really tricky problems that arise with interpreting a literary texts – I’m thinking here of de Man’s essay, “Form and in Intent in the American New Criticism” – also exist in dealing with any form of secondary material, whether by the author or others. Something else is going on.

While the issue is raised in the context of interpretive criticism I don’t think the argument is really about practical matters of interpretation. And that brings us to Joseph Carroll. One practical value of an appeal to the author would be to rule against an interpretation that’s not consistent with the author’s intent (as we’ve been able to ascertain it). Carroll is certainly interested in ruling lots of interpretations out of court. But his main instrument for doing so is bio-cultural criticism (aka Darwinian literary criticism). Once that’s been done, what interpretive range is left where an appeal to the author would be possible?

I’ve read some of his practical criticism – his discussions of Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights – and he certainly rules against a great many interpretations. But, as I recall, he does that with his critical theory, not through an appeal to the author. Why, then, does he need to appeal to the author’s intention?

It must have to do with the kind of story he wants to tell about how literature works, how it achieves its effects. While authorial intention was put in dispute back in the 1950s by the new critics, the major battles were fought in the 1960s and 1970s, and they were fought over language. These battles displaced individual human subjects – readers as well as authors – with vast systems, semiotic systems, systems of power, systems of control. Carroll combats those with his bio-cultural ideas. When Carroll interprets a text, he does so with evolutionary psychology and cultural theory.

Authorial intention is just along for the ride. It isn’t a source of evidence. It’s not as though Carroll takes an interpretation as far as bio-cultural reasoning can go, and then calls on the author to nail down the last details. The author is something that Carroll is saving, not something he’s asking for testimony.

I wonder what he thinks of Great Man theories of history?

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