October 18, 2012

Immersion criticism, intentionalism, and textualism

This is the first time I’ve heard the term immersion criticism, but as a descriptor of the interpretive methodology it’s trying to capture, it’s perfectly apt.  Essentially, immersion criticism is nothing more, really, than intensive close reading of a text — but it represents a kind of nearly obsessive intentionalism that I think might be interesting to those who’ve read me on the subject over the years.  And that’s because it is instructive in this sense:  just because one starts out with the proper goal when interpreting — that is, recovering the intentions of the author (and again, that’s the goal of claims of intepretation; one can explore other attributes of a text, or even tear out the pages and make origami swans or paper airplanes, and those are valid, often interesting, and sometimes amusing uses of the text.  They just aren’t an interpretation of the text in the sense we think of interpretation along a communicative chain) — doesn’t mean one is guaranteed success in reaching the proper interpretation.  Which is a claim that, though I’ve heard it attributed to me by some confused textualists or post-structuralists, is one I’ve never made.

You can intend, and the receiver of your message can seek intentionally to try to recover your intent.  But failures can occur.  Either you didn’t make your meaning clear enough, or the person interpreting the message, though s/he’s used the proper methodology to try to recover your meaning, failed to do so successfully.

In the examples of immersion criticism talked about in the essay, the viewers/critics, believing the filmmaker has a secret intent that he is not revealing, look for clues and cues from which to draw interpretative conclusions.  They look at the filmmaker’s life, his biographical circumstances; they place his work in the context of his other works (intertextuality), and look for patterns or recurring themes / motifs; they seek — and seem to find, to their own satisfaction — symbology that repeats within the film’s surface depictions, but which to their minds is a point of hidden emphasis, proven by its repetition (intratextuality); they consider the historical context of the making of the film and its place in both the wider culture and the smaller world of either filmmaking or a certain type of filmmaking, relating again back to the filmmaker’s own theorizing about the medium (historicism, cultural dialogics, heteroglossia, etc.).

They do all the things one does to try to interpret a complex text — and they take into account what they believe the filmmaker intended — and yet they draw the wrong conclusions.

I’ve often spoken of the lesson I used to teach honor’s English students at the University of Denver:  I assigned as a text Curious George, and along with it, I provided them with “excerpts” of critical readings of the book from made-up literary critics representing various schools of critical thought (Obama, for instance, would be instantly drawn to the post-colonialist reading I wrote up in which George represents a third world native / third world resource stolen by a colonial power who then uses him / it as a source of enrichment).  All of the readings I offer are plausible based on the text, the illustrations, and the gaps left in the story — a feature, incidentally, of most children’s books.  But in the end, the students have to decide:  were the authors of Curious George trying to write a story with a subtext redounding to Queer theory or post-colonialism?  Or were they just trying to write a book about an inquisitive and mischievous monkey?

That is, what did they intend.

Important here is the distinction:  clearly, the book can be read to mean all of the things the “critics” argue it means.  But if it only means that to them, then they have taken the text and shown how to do clever things with the signifiers provided.  In immersion criticism, the interpreter is not making the same argument that a New Critic or textualist would make:  namely, that the autonomous text, divorced from the intent that signified it, can be examined by a group of reasonable people and be said to mean that George represents and exploited colonized native.  In immersion criticism, the interpreter might reach that very same conclusion the textualist or New Critic reached, but s/he does so because that’s what s/he believes the author wanted us to find.  That is, that the post-colonial subtext was intentional.

H.A. and Martha Rey, therefore, wrote a postcolonialist critique disguised, superficially, as a story about a monkey.  At least, that’s the argument an immersion critic could make — ludicrous though it likely is;  a textualist, conversely, could draw that same conclusion and do so by saying that this is what the text does regardless of what the author(s) wanted it to do.

The former is interpretation. The latter is resignification — a rewriting of the text that privileges the intentions of the interpreter without an appeal to the intentions of the author.

How you get there matters.  Intentionalists can of course be incorrect in their interpretations.  But what they are doing, at least, is attempting to interpret (in this case) complex texts using all their knowledge of code and convention and biography and narratology, etc., in order to suss out the filmmaker’s intent.

The textualist, too, is an intentionalist — though s/he denies it; instead, the trick is to shift the locus of intent to that of the interpretive community, who then gets to decide what the text meant — without worrying about what the author meant.  It is a form of motivated collectivism.  Intellectual theft meant to debase and devalue the individual and the individual’s expressed will.

In its most pernicious form, this kind of textualist reading is then turned on the author or filmmaker thus:  the author may not have intended to glorify colonialism, but it’s clear that the text itself does just that, so we are within our rights to suggest that H.A. and Martha Rey are, you know, racist.  Albeit maybe subconsciously.

I guess we’ll just have to let a reader poll decide it.

(h/t nathan shumate)

Posted by Jeff G. @ 10:38am
37 comments | Trackback

Comments (37)

  1. After too long a time of not quite getting it:

    On goes the light bulb!

    It figures that it would take a reference to a book series I have to constantly read to my obsessive 3 year old for it to sink in.

    Thanks!

  2. This isn’t my field (and some of the broader work on the subject on this site over the years I’ve had to work through) but I’d like to offer some (hopefully) associated notions.

    The Obama phenomenon, together with the intellectualism that promoted his person and myth, was erected in the public’s eye by projection: Not knowing anything about the figure (but having been sold an effective libel against his predecessor) the electorate developed expectations of Obama’s progressivism that slipped past historical and traditional national structural assumptions.

    Progressivism’s inherent fraud, naturally, puts us exactly where we are four years later, with yet another failed collectivist and yet another failed State.

    None of this is hazy, difficult, or complex, but ardent progressives have had to arrange all sorts of excuses and arrangements in order to not admit the inevitable defeat of their thinking. Having tried and failed to remodel reality and then the nation, among them is the left’s remodeling another reality to suit what’s left of their man.

    That phenomenon I see as writing in a new projection, this one that as the Last Emperor, Obama’s very persona is itself capable of supporting their dashed ideals. Obama is just too crafty, too cool, too calculating, and ultimately, so above it all that when he’s retired — to his mansion and grounds in Hawaii — it’ll come not as a blow to progressivism that progressivism cannot cope with, but as a validation that progressivism is simply too important, too eternal, and too exclusive for what Obama left behind in probable disgust.

    Having lost our will to effectively defy incessant reinterpretations of the whole of the original American structure, the left installed an imprimatur of progressive cant and from it naturally issued an eventual champion.

    From this champion the experiment was run, to fail in every domain not artificially insulated from reality.

    Yet Obama still cannot lose. In the face of this defeat — it being anything but complete because such is the tenacious nature of The Lie — the left ratchets back through all sorts of denials, but the most telling is their final lie: In defeat, their champion still deserves their grace and courtesy. Now he’s just too cool to win. He hasn’t proved them right; he’s validated their fiction.

    They reinterpret words on a page, they reinterpret the nature of progress, and now they’ll surely reinterpret defeat. It’s what they do.

  3. Is the process of trying to ferret out some hidden agenda actually intentionalism? It seems to me to be a little step to the side, and perhaps backwards. I agree that the body of work can inform the interpretation of a text in a broad sense, but I’m not as sure that one can examine the nuances of an entire body of work to find some hidden intent that spans all the work, but requires the entire body of work to prove. It seems in that case that one is doing another rewrite, or at least applying a template that may not exist. In the least, it appears to be a method of attempting to identify something the creator of the text is applying subconsciously.

    I’m skeptical.

  4. It would depend on the author’s intention in the first place wouldn’t it? That is, if the author hides something without any intention it should ever be found then he’d leave no traceof the act at all . If, on the other hand, he hides something he intends should be found by those he wants to find it (and not by others from whom he intends it should stay hidden) then he’s going to point to it somehow that those he desires to look will see. That’s where the search for hidden things would begin, so as not to waste one’s time chasing after nullities.

  5. Is the process of trying to ferret out some hidden agenda actually intentionalism?

    It doesn’t have to be. In the examples provide here, though, it is: the presupposition, though it is likely wrong, is that the author/filmmaker intended to hide within the text clues to some subtextual narrative that, with a careful enough examination, becomes apparent.

    Really, this is the kind of thing literary critics do all the time. Only for the most part, they only attribute their readings to the author if they have a specific motive for doing so — whether it’s political (see? Twain was racist!) or whether it’s in the nature of their critical lens (for instance, psychological criticism will attribute to the author things that it will claim either were or were not conscious; in this sense it is intentionalism, just a rather dubious and narrow kind, in my opinion).

    I agree that the body of work can inform the interpretation of a text in a broad sense, but I’m not as sure that one can examine the nuances of an entire body of work to find some hidden intent that spans all the work, but requires the entire body of work to prove. It seems in that case that one is doing another rewrite, or at least applying a template that may not exist. In the least, it appears to be a method of attempting to identify something the creator of the text is applying subconsciously.

    Well, again, the presupposition to engage in this kind of criticism is that you believe the author did in fact intend to do such a thing.

    But that aside, even were you to say s/he did so subconsciously, that is still a manifestation of a particular agency. That agency is responsible for creating those signs. Therefore, though you may claim it was an unconscious or unnoticed intent, it is still intent. Otherwise it is but accident, and the agency in question didn’t mean what you found in the text at all.

  6. Correct, sdferr.

    As I’ve noted before, any text can be intended completely ironically. But if there’s no cues to interpret it that way, we wouldn’t expect anyone to argue convincingly that a complete inversion of the apparent meaning is what the author meant. He will have failed to signal his intent with respect to the meaning of the text; but he may have intended to do just that.

    It doesn’t change the fact that he meant what he meant. It just makes the whole thing a private joke.

  7. I’ve heard tales of things like the European Cathedral stained glass makers placing tributes to God away high up at the tippity-top of towering windows in places no one will ever see from the floor, bethinking themselves at the time that God alone — besides themselves — will see their work. That sort of stuff.

  8. Or Penelope’s code: “they moved the bed”.

  9. In the examples of immersion criticism talked about in the essay, the readers … look for clues and cues from which to draw interpretative conclusions. They look at … biographical circumstances; they place [the] work in the context of other works (intertextuality), and look for patterns or recurring themes / motifs; they seek — and seem to find, to their own satisfaction — [emph. add.] symbology that repeats … which to their minds is a point of hidden emphasis, proven by its repetition (intratextuality); they consider the historical context[s] … (historicism, cultural dialogics, heteroglossia, etc.).

    Sounds like what Leo Strauss was trying to do. Or at least, what Daniel J. Flynn’s sources say Leo Strauss was trying to do.

  10. So the failure point of this method is the assumption that there is hidden intent. On careful reading of the post, you stated that plainly. That assumption is unprovable on its own, even if you find evidence to back up some hidden intent, since the evidence must be fairly sketchy in each separate text or else the intent would not be hidden. I still see the interpreter inserting himself too much (I doubt anyone can avoid inserting some of themselves) into the process, even if his conclusions are correct.

    It’s a judgement call, and I find that this methodology might be crossing the line. However, compared to other methods of interpretation which do nothing of the sort, it’s a big step in the right direction.

  11. When I say “careful reading” I mean actually reading every word, something I rarely do.

  12. To find out what Leo Strauss was trying to do it’s best to begin by reading (or listening to) Leo Strauss. That should do the trick, if he knew how to communicate his intentions.

  13. You can see this in some of Poe’s short stories. His detective fiction will often contain in the makeup or cadence of a sentence, or choice of a specific word, clues to how to solve the mystery before the mystery is solved for you in the telling of tale by Dupin. The text is acting on several levels at once, intentionally so.

  14. When I say “careful reading” I mean actually reading every word, something I rarely do.

    Again, depending on authorial intent, such examinations can go far beyond merely “reading” every word, but can go to such things as counting every occurrence of a word or notation of a necessary word’s absence. People can devise all sorts of fantastic devices for smuggling, none of which we can rule out of bounds beforehand. But the evidence requiring such researches would have to be very strong to start.

  15. To find out what Leo Strauss was trying to do it’s best to begin by reading (or listening to) Leo Strauss. That should do the trick, if he knew how to communicate his intentions.

    From Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, quoted in Flynn.

    Persecution … gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing … in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines. That literature is addressed, not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only. It has all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage—that it reaches only the writer’s acquaintances. It has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author. [....] [A]n author who wishes to address only [trustworthy and intelligent] men has but to write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book. [emph. add.]

    quotation truncated by me to avoid typing for 30 mins.

  16. “On Page 458, on line seven of the second paragraph beginning on that page, you wrote ‘also’ instead of merely ‘and.’ What did you mean by that?”

  17. I’m an impatient reader is all. I’m that way when reading anything, unless it’s a tech manual that I have to read to find some elusive incantation I need to use to get the hardware working.

  18. “On Page 458, on line seven of the second paragraph beginning on that page, you wrote ‘also’ instead of merely ‘and.’ What did you mean by that?”

    My editor missed that one.

  19. Correct again, sdferr. Going back to Poe (and really, many good writers or even bad poets will use these techniques), if you look at a portion of, say, The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe peppers his sentences describing the swinging of the (unseen) blade with lots of sibilance. The sound and rhythmic structure of the sentences is devised to ape the speed and sound of a swinging pendulum. It reinforces the power of the story by providing another layer of sensation to what it is we are experiencing when we read the story.

    Of course, Poe was also a critic. And so it makes sense to investigate his works for the kinds of things he professed to find necessary in quality fiction. That’s where biography can give us a clue to look more closely at a given work.

    The flip side of reliance on such assumptions, though, is that, eg., just because, say, HG Wells wrote a story during a period where he was also criticizing the Boer War, the story is at some subtextual level about the Boer War. It is just as possible that the impetus for a story — or its subtext, if it has one — goes back to a bad clam, or a slight received at the haberdashery.

  20. I guess I’m a dumbass then. Well, there was already sufficient evidence for that.

    I am very good at programming, though, so I have something to cling to. Bitterly. Along with my guns and religion.

  21. To complete the paragraph Ernst found [PatAoW, p.25]:

    “But how can a man perform the miracle of speaking in a publication to a minority, while being silent to the majority of his readers? The fact which makes this literature possible can be expressed in the axiom that thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers. Therefore an author who wishes to address only thoughtful men has but to write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book. But, it will be objected, there may be clever men, careful readers, who are not trustworthy, and who, after having found the author out, would denounce him to the authorities. As a matter of fact, this literature would be impossible if the Socratic dictum that virtue is knowledge, and therefore that thoughtful men as such are trustworthy and not cruel, were entirely wrong.”

  22. Is Chris Matthews Certifiably Insane? Film at eleven.

  23. Back when the argument about the King Kong movie was swirling around, I shared the Curious George experiment with a friend of mine who is a dyed-in-the-wool postmodern deconstructionist, because it illustrates the utter disregard (or worse — theft) of an author’s intent, by means of an argument far clearer and more compelling than anything I managed to put together when we argued in college. I still have it bookmarked.

    As far as immersion criticism goes, I can see the distinction between this and its counterpart where the interpreter is privileged over the author, but I can’t help thinking that the method lends itself to obsessive compulsives who are almost certain to start seeing things that aren’t there. In a way, I think it’s dangerous, inasmuch as it gives your garden-variety conspiracy theorist a means to argue that he’s not delusional; he’s just more observant than you.

  24. In a way, I think it’s dangerous, inasmuch as it gives your garden-variety conspiracy theorist a means to argue that he’s not delusional; he’s just more observant than you.

    In a way, possibly so. But for the most part we recognize very quickly what shines genuine light bringing greater clarity and what does not. So our simple reason should protect us from base timewasters.

  25. In a way, I think it’s dangerous, inasmuch as it gives your garden-variety conspiracy theorist a means to argue that he’s not delusional; he’s just more observant than you.

    True, Squid. But you still have to sell the interpretation as a correct one.

    Hell, you could be right — Kubrick is telling you he feels terrible about faking the moon landing, as evidenced by xyz in these 230 frames of The Shining — but unless you can convince people, it doesn’t do you much good, assuming your goal is to persuade them that you’re correct.

    It may just be that now only you and Kubrick know the truth. And that’s going to have to be enough for you.

  26. Matthews seemed appalled. “I don’t think [Romney] understands the Constitution of the United States,” Matthews said. “He’s the president of the United States. You don’t say, ‘You’ll get your chance.’”

    I don’t know what’s funnier, that John Adams lost Chris Mathews’s argument for him 212 years ago, or that Chris Matthews just outted himself as a neo-Federalist.

  27. How dare you interrupt the priest king when he’s speaking.

  28. And Obama shut up and waited his turn like a little kid who just got chided by Dad.

    That was the best part.

  29. The contrapositive (to Romney) of Matthew’s claim is simply “You don’t get your chance (Mr. Romney).”

    Which, that sounds about right from Obama’s (or Matthew’s) point of view.

  30. sdferr @ 12:13pm “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

  31. Heh, which is in part why things are a little tougher on the power-tool driven deef among us.

  32. For the record: I’m the one who dropped the rest of the paragraph, not Flynn.
    Anyways, Flynn on the Strauss quote:

    This argument depends on wishful thinking. The paragraph contains two major problems. First “virtue” isn’t “knowledge,” and “thoughtful men” can indeed be untrustworthy and cruel. Stating that intelligent [emph. orig.] readers will stumble upon what Strauss believes is the author’s intended truth is a way of begging the question. This circular logic dictates that only readers who employ Strauss’s methods are intelligent. If you don’t find what Strauss wants you to find, you lack intelligence. Second, what exists “between the lines”? The answer: blank space. It’s the reader, rather than the writer who fills in this empty space. In Strauss’s system, readers cease being readers and become sleuths, code-breakers, and forensic scientists. Writers, meanwhile, cease to determine the meaning of the words they write. [emph. add.]

  33. What we see here is Diane Feinstein mustered out to run interference against reasonable (and obvious) questions. There’s no time to waste, the Dems must make due haste: the bell rings Monday next. Whaoah-oh.

    Peddle faster Diane, it looks like they’re gaining on you.

  34. That’s kinda sad stuff from Mr. Flynn. Be that as it may, readers are best served if they make their encounters with Strauss’ writings and teachings — and his subjects of interpretation — on their own.

  35. Peddle much much faster Diane:

    President Barack Obama told comedian Jon Stewart Thursday that the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi was caused by communication inside his administration that is “not optimal.”

    The understatement came during Obama’s election-trail conversation on Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which is built on sardonic and flippant humor.

    “Here’s what I’ll say: If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal. We’re going to fix it. All of it,” Obama said during the show’s Oct. 18 taping, according to press pool reporters from The Washington post and the Los Angeles Times who were along for the interview.

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