The Anti-Vivisection League demands that you cease and desist all literary hew-hawing and videographic nitpickery at once!

Discussing: Dissecting films and books in the name of English

In the above writeup, Posmella makes the following points:

  1. It detracts from the enjoyment of a book or film by "hunting down the tiniest detail and giving it a wealth of symbolism and pathetic meanings/links to events in the plot"
  2. Searching for said 'symbols' (links, meanings...) is both boring (see #1) and foolish, because the author in some or most cases did not intend them. That is, the author is the last word on the text.

I have no particular grudge against the first claim, and can (based on a number of personal junior high school experiences) sympathize with it. I do disagree that the project of textual analysis is entirely fruitless and 'boring'. For sheer nerdery's sake, as I'm sure a number of Everythingians know, it can be fun to analyse and nitpick films and books. For examples, see nodes related to...ohh...Star Wars. But, I assume that Posmella is referring to some sort of high school or junior high school English class, in which already-bored students are forced to answer ever-poignant questions relating to the image of whiteness in Shakespeare's Othello or somesuch... While for an Othello scholar this might be important or amusing, I think that non-specialist teachers might be better served in taking another, less-specific approach to literature, especially given the lack of interest shown by most students. But, I'm no education reformer, and I'm only discussing it because it was the main point of the above writeup.

This brings me to the second point that Posmella has raised: that of the tyranny of authorial intent over a text's meaning. While I'm lukewarm to cold over the first point, I think there are some good reasons why we can and should look past an author's view of her own work. Which is not to say that authorial intention has no role to play in deciphering a text, or that it is completely unimportant (this is particularly not the case when we are situating a text within actively political texts). Rather, I would like to argue that other factors, and other theoretical outlooks may provide useful, interesting, and beautiful readings which may have been overlooked otherwise.

Recent theoretical trends (both in philosophy and literary theory) have moved further and further away from 'original' readings and authorial governance. Deconstructive, psychoanalytic and various other critics deemed 'post-structuralist' have given us readings of canonical works that are at once plausible and extraordinarily detached from what we have generally considered the author's intentions. Deconstruction, in literary terms at least, is the act of setting up, reversing, and eventually invalidating oppositions. So, to use a poor, and probably improbable example, a deconstructive reading of Othello might set up the opposition Black (the Moor Othello) versus White (Desdemona, Venetian maiden, fair and pure...) and proceed to demolish it by attributing 'blackness' to White and 'whiteness' to Black... (citing textual examples up the wazoo while we're at it).

I don't know a whole lot about Psychoanalysis (very, very little in fact) but psychoanalytic readings seem to rely more on tropes and complexes (we all know Oedipus, for instance) within the interaction of characters (in a play) or in phrasing, imagery etc. Obviously if psychoanalysis preys upon (look at my metaphors, I'm ripe for analysis...) instances of the unconscious, it is inherently against the tyranny of the author's intention in determining the 'true' reading of the work. You can't be intentionally unconscious, except when you take sleeping pills, yo.

Phase 2

Besides the possibility of fruitful/interesting readings that aren't based upon the author's intentions, there is, I think a larger problem in assuming an author's 'presence' in dictating meaning. To do so assumes that there is a stable sort of Platonic form that allows the author to slip outside temporality, unaffected by the world around him or her. To assume authorial presence is to subscribe to the myth of an original self, one that can creatively produce without interference, with absolute control.

Personally (ooh, how ironic) I find this hard to swallow (mouth: psychoanalysis). It is not as if the author can be over your shoulder whispering into your ear the one 'true' meaning of the work (though even if she was, that meaning would be subject to YOUR interpretation, which is always a mediated one). What I'm trying to say is that: the myth of presence allows us to trick ourselves into believing that there is one obvious meaning that everyone agrees upon, and that can't be escaped. I think this is, from beginning to end, a mistaken assumption. Every reading is an interpretation, we don't jus t'get at' the fleshy meat of the meaning by reading something 'correctly'. Reading is always-already reading FROM somewhere, be it from the psychoanalytic/deconstructive literary scholar's viewpoint, the authorial viewpoint, or the bored North American highschool student's viewpoint. We can't just assume that whatever reading we deem obvious is necessarily the correct one, or the 'more correct' one. There are simply variant readings, none of which can be privileged.

So, that's my tirade. Further (more 'philosophical', read: pretentious) points could be made regarding the instability of 'individual' viewpoints, and their situation within larger fluctuating social/economic/political/aesthetic structures... but I think the point that author's don't 'own' their original meanings has been made.

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