Intellectual elitism and the case of the missing author
Over at Edge of the West, where SEK’s critically flawed post on my engagement with Patterico has been subsequently removed, there remains a number of comments that I find troubling for a number of reasons. First, there is an peculiar, but obvious, attempt there to try to dismiss my intentionalist argument without addressing it at all; second, there is the desire to strengthen this dismissal by diminishing me, either by attaching to me a political label (he’s a rightwinger, therefore he can’t possibly have anything intelligent or interesting to add to our club for serious scholars) or by cartooning my position, then dismissing the cartoon as if it somehow represented my actual argument (his position is that intention governs every aspect of textual anaysis, a position so strong as to be ridiculous).
Lost in all the self-serving back and forth about how it is legitimate to dismiss me out of hand and yet still claim to be an intellectual is any discussion of my actual position, which I’ve always invited.
And what I find disturbing is that, rather than ask me to explain that position, these “scholars” have asked SEK to write something up so that they can understand it. As if SEK, by virtue of having waded into the anti-intellectual depths of Wingnuttia, is, by virtue of his being “one of them,” more capable of making my argument than I am.
Plus — bonus! — they don’t have to deal with me, who they’ve characterized as irrelevant, even as they pretend to have an interest in the argument I make. Just, you know, provided it’s not me who makes or defends it. Double bonus — Timmy in the comments, trying to pass himself off as a literary scholar!
Here’s the comment I left on the site:
â€œTheyâ€™re trying to start a movement â€” an OUTLAW movement [...]â€
This has the flaw, for a research project, of being not sufficiently historicized. The rhetoric appears to me to be a bog-standard outgrowth of Nixonland right-wing resentment, and as such itâ€™s part of the standard alternation between eliminationist ranting in the years in power and faux-outlaw posturing in the years out of power that has charactered the right in the North since the start of the Southern strategy. Dave Neiwert at Orcinus has been covering the specifically Internet parts of this, and has worked out some of the historical and theoretical connections.
Such a perfect storm of dismissiveness followed by wild assertions followed by name dropping.
Like a freshly-minted parody of academic writing.
Hereâ€™s the thing, Rich. Rather than rely on what SEK tells you I mean by intentionalism, perhaps you should query me, or better still, come join in one of the discussions. My idea, you say, is “so strong as to be ridiculous”. To which I reply, only to those of a type who, rather than engaging, bring up Nixon and right wing eliminationist ranting and are so busy ascribing base motives [to those they are hoping to summarily dismiss] that they effectively talk themselves out of considering arguments on merit.
When I deal with intentionalism, it is within the frame of [such questions as] what constitutes interpretation, why do we call what weâ€™re doing interpretation, and just what are we interpreting?
The idea that it is intent of some agency that provides a signfier its signification is hardly so nutty as to be dismissed with the rhetoric Iâ€™m seeing here.
In fact, all Iâ€™m seeing here is a dismissal of what I supposedly argue by those who take their cues from people like Dave Neiwert.
Code words. Jesus, how very convenient that you leave it to yourselves to build the frame, then prove its existence by identifying the secret code that proves it.
And by â€œidentifyingâ€ I mean, of course, inventing. Because thatâ€™s what serves your purposes.
The way the â€œscholarsâ€ here are all so kneejerk dismissive speaks poorly of the field Iâ€™m guessing most of us here studied in some depth.
Where SEK has gotten me very wrong recently is the idea that he seems to think I donâ€™t appreciate the subtleties or difficulties of textual analysis, or that I donâ€™t appreciate many of the tools one uses to tease meaning from a text.
This is wrong.
All Iâ€™m arguing is that once we enter an interpretive situation in which we agree the author had an intent (that what we are dealing with is in fact signs, and not merely signifiers), we then set about to try to decode the text knowing it was intended to mean.
How we interpret, once weâ€™ve established that baseline, is to use every tool weâ€™ve developed to help us reconstruct intent â€” from convention to code to inter- and intratexuality to structuralim (I happen to be trained in narratology, and in literary texts, I often use that as one of my primary tools) to biography, to cultural dialogics, to historicity, and on and on.
But the goal, as far as my argument goes, is to best recover the authorâ€™s meaning â€” his use of language â€” if what we say we are doing is interpreting the same text.
Where I differ with some theorists is that they assume that, as one person here writes:
” I get it as a biographical question, come sophistimacated parlor game. I donâ€™t get it as a component of textual analysis, where it seems entirely beside the point. And from a historical (and, I assume, historicist) perspective authorial intent would be relevant only to the extent that it, or various statements about it, circulated as one of the paratexts accompanying a work of fiction.”
Why does one need paratexts to help divine authorial intent? Why is what the text was intended to signal â€œentirely beside the point,â€ either from an historical or historicist perspective, or from any other perspective that presents as one of its goals â€œinterpretationâ€?
All interpretation requires intent. Whose intent is privileged in the process is, to me, both the question and the rub.
What saddens me is that people here pretend this to be some intellectual forum, and yet Iâ€™ve seen responses that serve only to diminish my argument (without knowing it) or to dismiss me out of hand (for the crime of having been labeled by others a â€œright winger,â€ which identity Iâ€™m learning saddles me with baggage that those who are doing the identifying have given themselves license to strap to my back, as a way of preemptively putting me on the defensive).
The entire tone of this thread, in fact, is one that serves as a warning to those who may disagree with the characterizations presented here: â€œkeep out.â€
If you wish to take issue with my arguments, Iâ€™m always glad to engage on that level. But the kinds of comments here seem to me to be trying to establish erudition and superiority without having first earned it.
Rich mentions Eco, who was, to me, a major influence. Early on, I used to discuss a â€œtextual entityâ€ that I posited existed between the historical author and the intention of the text. Having hashed this out once with Walter Benn Michaels, he convinced me that I was adding an unnecessary set of layers â€” that in fact all of that proceeded from the historical author, who is ultimately responsible for creating signs, and so for creating an instance of language.
Receivers can, of course, do this as well â€” intend to see signifiers as signs, and in doing so construct a text â€” but to do so knowing that what they were encountering were signs to begin with, and then bracketing the agency who created those signs as unimportant to a textâ€™s meaning, seemed rather much like an [opportunistic] coup [meant to install a new regime presuming to lord over textual meaning and authority].
My early academic work centered around unreliable narrators, which is what began pushing me in the direction of how one is able to detect such in the first place. Narratology proved an invaluable tool.
I have never, ever said that “textual analysis” must be dedicated solely to divining intent. In fact, I have written on many occasions that there are many valuable things we can do with texts that arenâ€™t tied to intepretation of text-as-implied-speech act.
What Iâ€™ve been critical of is those who have found other useful ways to engage in textual analyses who have then turned around and suggested that what they have done is interpret the text that the author created. [Which they haven't.] Because I donâ€™t think one can make that claim without appealing back to the authorâ€™s intent, captured in his significations.
To do otherwise is to privilege the receiverâ€™s intent to make a set of signifiers do what they were never intended by the author to do.
It is privileging a readerâ€™s cleverness over a desire to understand what the author was trying to convey.
– All of which opens up the field of literary studies to a number of niche [areas of specialization]. Some of you seem to think I have a problem with that. I donâ€™t. I just want it made clear that the assumptions about language that underpin certain theoretical stances with respect to the text-as-intended â€” to the text as a linguistic entity, rather than a set of squiggles or sound forms or brush strokes emptied of the very thing that makes them language in the first place â€” necessarily propose a notion of â€œinterpretationâ€ that most people would, when they found out what those underpinnings are, recognize as being a threat to autonomy.
Again, Iâ€™m saddened that a group that evidently prides itself of intellectualism is so ready to dismiss me with self-serving nods to my physicality, or to my mode of rhetoric when it comes to dealing with those who, to be honest, have treated me as poorly as Iâ€™ve been treated in this thread.
Being haughtily dismissive and then following that up with a litany of jargon and a few well-placed name drops does not an argument or a discussion make.
If you have no desire to argue these things on the merits, just say so. But donâ€™t pretend youâ€™ve done the more difficult work of fighting for your positions when all youâ€™ve really done is sought to diminish my credibility in order to maintain the kind of intellectual laziness that is all to prevalent in literary and textual studies these days.
Iâ€™ve come here in good faith to answer comments that were offered in a much different vein.
Iâ€™m going to repost on my site this rather lengthy, extemporaneously composed comment; I invite Rich, Martin, and the others who claim an interest in textual analysis, interpretation, and how those jibe with intentionalism, to visit and give me the lashing I deserve.
As SEK now knows (but has yet to correct), I never banned him from my site. I removed a trackback, noting Iâ€™d done so â€” which had the practical effect of letting everyone know a post existed that I didnâ€™t want linked to my post.
Here, a post has been removed altogether. And yet I donâ€™t see SEK writing about your hypocrisy or desire to chill his speech.
To those of you who read SEKâ€™s original post, Iâ€™ll pose the same questions I posed to him: where is the threat of violence? He links to a comment of mine that hints of extralegal strategies for dealing with such nastiness aimed my way, but what he doesnâ€™t tell you is that I had prior to that made it clear that Iâ€™d handle the situation like I always do: namely, find and release the name of the anonymous commenter who publicly posted nasty lies about my family situation. My way of adding to internet â€œcivility.â€ Tough love, letâ€™s call it.
Given that there are no instances of my having physically accosted anyone ever, and given that there are a number of instances where Iâ€™ve handled these situations in the way I describe, by what method of â€œtextual analysisâ€ did SEK arrive at this charge heâ€™s leveled against me? And doesnâ€™t that matter?
Too, SEK leaves out key elements in the chronology of events. Is this reframing of the historical narrative presented to get to the truth? Or to help create a ground on which Iâ€™m to be indicted?
Again, does that not matter?
Can these techniques, whether out of sloppiness or malice, not be used against you?
Case in point: SEK, in a comment that pretends to explain me, writes:
What begins â€” what began, with Jeff, as a theoretical position about the importance of intent became this if-we-canâ€™t-beat-Alinsky-letâ€™s-co-opt-him mentality.
Now, as anyone who knows my argument knows, this is the precise opposite of what I advocate.
I don’t want to adopt the tactics used by people like Maher or Olberman or even Patterico. Instead, I want to destroy their effectiveness by exposing how they work and insisting that we not allow the framework by which the tactics gain purchase. Which is why I was critical of any “reading” of the Flight 93 memorial that didn’t directly appeal to authorial intent.
I don’t need SEK pretending to make my case for me. Because whenever he does so, he adds or finesses bits intended to obfuscate or blatantly misrepresent what it is I’m arguing.
Why these people think they will get a better accounting of my position from SEK than from me goes a long way toward understanding the mindset of these kind of self-proclaimed experts and wannabe elites.
Remember: while they are off teaching Victorian novels alongside the Corn Act, I’m here at home, sitting on my ass, with plenty of time to think about these things…