Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Convoluted Attempt at Meaning

"In practical terms, then, the stakes in the battle over intention are extremely low--in fact, they don't exist. Hence it doesn't matter who wins. In theoretical terms, however, the stakes are extremely high, and it still doesn't matter who wins. The stakes are high because they amount to the existence of theory itself; it doesn't matter who wins because as long as one thinks that a position on intention (either for or against) makes a difference in achieving valid interpretations, the ideal of theory itself is saved. Theory wins. But as soon as we recognize that there are no theoretical choices to be made, then the point of theory vanishes. Theory loses" (Knapp 730).

Indeed, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels present the most convoluted argument that I have read in quite some time. And for all the dismissals of other critics' work in this analytical rant, both authors neglect to acknowledge their proposed methodology or framework is (in and of itself) a theory. To say "Meaning is just another name for expressed intention" (742) is patently false. Meaning can exist without authorial intention. The ubiquitous example of the wave poem in Knapp and Michaels' analysis serves as an example. The observer may derive some meaning from the poem, and he or she may derive that meaning merely from the fact that he or she feels some connection to those words in the sand. Perhaps the words speak to some experience that the observer has had. No author could have ever accounted for EVERY conceivable effect that his or her writing would have on readers. And while it may be helpful to examine the author's mindset at the time of writing or authorial influences, we can never fully understand an author's intent. By Knapp and Michaels' logic, therefore, we can never understand meaning. Thus, theory is indeed a valuable tool. It helps us to bridge the gap. If their argument was a "pragmatist" (740) one, it wouldn't require a convoluted and nearly nonsensical construction. I understand that this critique is a bold condemnation. But these authors present claims that are equally bold. They claim that "the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned" (724). If "the stakes in the battle over intention are extremely low," then Knapp and Michaels' own argument has no thrust. It seems that their very thesis can be used against them. If intention is meaningless, then why bother with a diatribe against it? There are theoretical choices to be made. The observer of Knapp and Michaels' ridiculous wave poem choose to think about the poem in the context of their own life experiences and to derive their own meanings or to think about the poem in the sand's intertextuality and the authorial intent associated with it. And to say that there cannot be intentionless meanings is folly. No author in 1842 (I selected that year arbitrarily) could have possibly intended for his text to have a precise meaning in 2011. But meaningless nonetheless exist. We still read texts and take something away from them. The stakes of theory are high, and it does matter who wins. To say that we cannot derive any meaning from texts other than the meaning that an author allegedly intended ignores the entire purpose for reading. We read because we identity with texts. We read because we want to engage with texts. And we engage texts in a multiplicity of ways--not just in a consideration of an author's intent.

**All Citations From: Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982): 723-742.

1 comment:

  1. While I also did not agree with the article for my own reasons, I feel that your analysis does not give the article the respect it deserves. In fact, you seem to be guilty of constructing a similar "dismissal of other critics' work in this analytical rant." To start, you take Knapp's and Michaels' wave example out of context. You say that this example clearly proves your point in that we can find meaning in this hypothetical authorless text. What you fail to recognize is that Knapp and Michaels were addressing a different point. They are using the "poem in the wave" example to address a philosophical issue of language. What they say is that, if there is no author, then what you see is not language. It is a random assortment of squiggles that happens to look like a poem, and therefore has no meaning. Any meaning we find in it would be falsely imposed. This point can be debated, but it should not be disregarded in the manner shown by your post.

    Secondly, you misinterpret your starting quote. The paragraph you use as an example highlights a debate between what Knapp and Michaels call "intentionalists" and "anti-intentionalists." It appears to me that you assume Knapp and Michaels are "intentionalists." You seem to have missed that they are actually highlighting a debate between two parties and that they disagree with both of them. "Anti-intentionalists" are proponents of a more abstract use of theory, recognizing that there may not be one correct interpretation. "Intentionalists," on the other hand, believe that theory should be used explicitly to interpret the author's intended meaning. The authors of this article distinguish themselves very clearly that there can be nothing outside of intention. Their argument, therefore, completely subverts all other theoretical debates about literature. It poses that all sides are wrong and that theory itself is misguided. While, again, I disagree with them, their argument is compelling enough that it should be taken into closer consideration and not vehemently dismissed.