Sunday, May 1, 2011

Meaning in Writing

“The method then consists in adding speech acts to language; speech acts bring with them the particular intentions that allow interpreters to clear up the ambiguities intrinsic to language as such. But this separation of language and speech acts need not be used to establish an interpretive method; it can in fact be used to do just the opposite. For a theorist like Paul de Man, the priority of language to speech acts suggests that all attempts to arrive at determinate meanings by adding intentions amount to violation of the genuine condition of language…theory in its negative or antimethodological mode tries to preserve what it takes to be the purity of language from the distortion of speech acts” (Knapp and Michaels 733).

"Against Theory" by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels

In the above quote, Knapp and Michaels suggest theory is a violation of language. Knapp and Michaels’ argument appears to be nihilistic in that they refute the ideas of theory in terms of how authors try to (or try not to) give a meaning behind their work. I agree that when consciously writing, theory can violate “genuine language,” but the existence of theory makes writing an art through objectivity; theory is a mean in which language and writing in general can be organized and evaluated. It can be argued through many lenses that theory is the essence of writing. Without a purpose, an author’s work has no meaning because a message is not being shared. I would be more interested in hearing Knapp and Michael’s opinion on what the essence of writing actually is. It is up to the author to decide whether it is more important to value language over meaning or vice versa. While theory can be a hindrance to writing and language, it is a way in which we can evaluate a text, therefore assigning value to a text according to how it demonstrates or does not demonstrate a particular theory.

Meaning Without Intention

"However one might understand this text, one could not understand it as a representation of 'the meaning of a particular utterance.' We agree with this--if it implies that the random marks mean nothing, are not language, and therefore cannot be interpreted at all...Our point is that marks produced by chance are not words at all but only resemble them."

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

I disagree with the assertion from Knapp and Michaels that marks produced by chance aren’t real words, and just resemble them. Regardless of whether there is intention or not, I think that all words do have meaning and therefore should be given equal representation. Granted, words produced by chance are likely not as complicated as those produced with intention. When we present our thoughts and ideas, we impress our intentions to the audience. The words we use to express this intent are formed in a certain way to produce an end meaning. However, even if words are produced by chance, we recognize those words to have specific meanings. Parrots are used as an example in the text. Although a parrot may not know what it means when it utters “Water is pouring down from the sky,” this shouldn’t represent a meaningless statement because those who hear this will interpret this in multiple ways. The fact that our own intentions are exposed to interpretation from our audience should confirm that a supposed “meaningless” statement or word can and does have meaning. Even if intention is absent, it can still possess meaning because the audience will see it as such. The “condition of language prior to the addition of intention” should not be dismissed as a word with no meaning simply because it is devoid of intention. They assert that “random marks mean nothing…and therefore cannot be interpreted at all.” I fail to see the validity in this argument, because what some may construe as a series of random marks void of potential interpretation can be viewed differently to other people. Meaning still exists even though intent may not be present because a word is subject to interpretation, and therefore given meaning.

Against Theory

"You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.), or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.). But in the second case--where the marks now seem to be accidents--will they still seem to be words?

Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words."

Knapp, Steven and Walter Benn Michaels. “Against Theory.” Critical Inquiry 8.4 JSTOR (1982) 728. Web. 1 May 2011.

I take issue with Knapp and Michaels' reasoning here. In their example of the wave poem, they state that if a person accepts that the wave poem was created spontaneously in nature, then the person observing the poem will believe the words have no meaning. "Will they still seem to be words? Clearly not." The statement is actually not so "clear." Poem can still be found within the words of the poem--in fact, the viewer could find inspiration in the words for a poem of his or her own. What is at stake by discovering the lack of agency in the poem's creation is the viewer's motivation to discover meaning, not an inherent lack of meaning. The article makes a large leap here that seems fallacious, though it makes several other credible points.

Are Intention And Meaning Always The Same?

"Not only in serious literal speech but in all speech what is intended and what is meant are identical. In separating the two Searle imagines the possibility of expression without intention and so, like Hirsch, misses the point of his own claim that when it comes to language 'there is no getting away from intentionality.' Missing this point, and hence imagining the possibility of two different kinds of meaning, is more than a theoretical mistake; it is the sort of mistake that makes theory possible." (729-730)

While I do agree that separating intention and meaning helps to make theory possible I do not believe that they should be called mistakes. I would agree that “what is intended and what is meant are identical” to some degree, but not always. Though it is possible to read a text and recognize the author’s intended meaning, this is not always the case. Sometimes, when you look at the author’s intent and then look at the meaning that the reader interprets, they are not always the same. I recently read about an interview with author Zadie Smith in regards to her novel White Teeth. In the interview she mentioned that many of her readers received a different meaning from the novel then what she intended for them to receive. This is a common thing in literature because a lot of the time meaning is up to the reader, and varies depending on the reader.

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

Angela Carter

"Yet, if she was asleep, she was dreaming of passion and afterwards I slept without dreaming for I had experienced a dream in actuality" (Carter 56).

This line was a central theme in the Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Desiderio was experiencing this "actuality" due to Doctor Hoffman's "desire machines." I liked the comparison between Mary Anne's dream and Desiderio's dream because it appeared that Carter was making a distinction between the complexity of men and women. The passgae said that Mary Anne was dreaming of "passion" and I feel that that word is heavily stressed towards how women think. I think Carter is saying that dreaming is a good thing whether you are doing it while you are asleep or you're fully awake. Carter then makes a reference to Desiderio and says that he slept "without dremaing" and I feel that she is showing that men's minds are not as complex. She may be saying that the "actuality" of things is more present in men. I do agree with the author's statement because women tend to be more emotional and passionate about the "self." Whereas men take things more literally and do not think/dream about things with such passion. The book itself is quite in depth and complicated and I feel that a man would not have wrote a story like this. I feel that the author is exploring not only the complexities of the "desire" of men, but how we percieve the "self" and how we are completely driven by desire. This is why the "desire" can occur in either a "dream" or in the "actuality." Basically "desire" is always present.

An Overwrought Argument

Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels make a critically audacious claim in their essay "Against Theory"-- that the practice of literary theory per se should be abandoned. Their reason for this is an assumption that, while blasphemous to mainstream scholars of literature, deserves consideration: meaning is categorically equivalent to intention. Though critics flail reflexively against this assertion, citing the plethora of pluralistic meanings reaped from a text through critical theoretical approaches, their definition of meaning seems to me to be abusively expansive. Of course there can be as many personal lessons, cultural applications, etc. drawn from the ideas presented in a text as there are individual readers, but meaning is NOT synonymous with relevance or valence, as these critics implicitly assume. Knapp and Michaels take issue only with the "attempt to govern interpretation of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general." (723)

While I find their basic premise to be a valid and provocative idea, the argument which they put forth to defend it tends to complicate and consequently weaken their case. It seems to me that one must either choose to accept or reject their definition of meaning. If one does not, their entire argument is futile. If one does, it is a long-winded sermon to the choir, for, like their vision of intention and meaning, there is no gap between their definition and the case built thereupon. In particular, their example of the poem in the sand that appears to have been written by the insentient waves, while initially compelling, seems to rest on faulty assumptions. "But in the second case-- where the marks now seem to be accidents-- will they still seem to be words? Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words... What you thought was poetry turns out not to be poetry at all. It's not poetry because it isn't language; that's what it means to call it an accident." (728) This analogy misses the point that critical theorists make when they "interpret" a text. They do not see the author's language, or the signifier as accidental, but assume that there can exist signifieds that are accidental, mutable, and plural.