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)