Intentionalism and the Arts

              Review of The Death and Resurrection of the Author

William Irwin informs us that his title is “intentionally ambiguous,” indicating that this collection aims, not to argue for a particular position on the “death” of the author – the elimination of the author from interpretation – or the “resurrection” of the author as a construct distinct from the historical writer, but rather to question these ideas and their implications as they emerge from two seminal essays by Barthes (“The Death of the Author”) and Foucault (“What Is an Author?”). Should the reader take Irwin’s intention as a guide to understanding the essays? Or does it constitute a constraint on interpretation to be resisted? Should it matter that Irwin is himself an intentionalist, or that the intention is to multiply rather than reduce possible interpretations? Has Irwin created a new author – a construct distinct from the actual Irwin – through his editorial activities?

However one responds to these questions, there is no doubt that this collection creates a fruitful dialogue of answers. The value of the book emerges from the multiple ways in which the essays engage Barthes, Foucault, and each other in conversation, inviting the reader to draw her own conclusions about the roles of both historical authors and author constructs in interpreting texts. Although this multiplicity sometimes threatens the coherence of the volume, it exemplifies a diverse set of approaches to questions of significance in both philosophy and literature. For this reason the collection provides a valuable and provocative resource for more advanced undergraduates and (more likely) graduate students with interests in both areas.

The philosophical focus of the volume distinguishes it from other (typically literary-theoretical) anthologies addressing Barthes and Foucault, as does its inclusion of essays from both the Anglo-American and continental philosophical traditions. Students will appreciate this multitude of perspectives on a topic that bridges such divides, though it helps to have a background in both philosophy and literary theory for some of the essays. None is inaccessible, but stylistic and methodological differences can give a reader pause. Still, most of the writers do a good job laying out their assumptions, so that students can gain from this exposure to different philosophical strategies. Apart from the essays by Barthes and Foucault, the collection includes seven reprinted articles (Alexander Nehamas, “Writer, Text, Work, Author”; Merold Westphal, “Kierkegaard and the Anxiety of Authorship”; Peter Lamarque, “The Death of the Author: An Analytical Autopsy”; Nickolas Pappas, “Authorship and Authority”; Robert Stecker, “Apparent, Implied, and Postulated Authors”; Cheryl Walker, “Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author”; and Jorge J.E. Gracia, “A Theory of the Author”), one essay revised from previous publications (Irwin’s “Intentionalism and Author Constructs”), and three written specifically for the volume (David Weberman, “Gadamer’s Hermeneutics and the Question of Authorial Intention”; Jason Holt, “The Marginal Life of the Author”; and Eric Bronson, “The Death of Cervantes and the Life of Don Quixote”).

This is the only anthology I know that includes the complete essays of both Barthes and Foucault; the latter is especially difficult to find in more than excerpted form. And while many essays are reprinted, the sources are disparate enough that one appreciates having them together one place. This is particularly true of the papers on author constructs (including Nehamas’s postulated author,’ Gracia’s ‘pseudo-historical author,’ and Irwin’s ‘urauthor’), given their increasingly important role in debates over authorial intention. Indeed I could not help wishing that the collection contained a wider variety of essays on this topic. Levinson’s ‘hypothetical author’ is mentioned in a few places only in passing. Stecker’s essay, the only one to discuss in detail Wayne Booth’s ‘implied author’ and Ken Walton’s ‘apparent artist,’ gives the misleading impression that these posits, along with Nehamas’s, are designed to address the same anti-intentionalist worries, and therefore does not serve as an adequate introduction to these proposals. Until there is an anthology devoted to the topic of author constructs, though, this collection fills an important need.

The need filled is not, however, primarily pedagogical. While it would very be useful for professors teaching courses that address authorial intention to have this collection available as a source of further readings, the volume is unlikely to serve as a primary text even in courses specifically focused on that topic. There are two reasons for this. First, the readings themselves presuppose a fairly sophisticated level of background on the debates over authorial intention. And second, neither the organization of the collection, nor Irwin’s brief descriptions of each essay, provides sufficient guidance for readers who are not already aware of particular debates.

The volume divided into two sections. Part One, “The Death of the Author?” aims to present and critique the case for the elimination, or reduction, of the role of the author in interpretation, while Part Two, “The Resurrection of the Author?” aims to develop and assess theories of author constructs. Irwin says he categorized the papers this way because they “tell different stories,” but the organization does little to develop a sense of narrative unity. For example, while in Part One Holt takes issue with certain views about author constructs, in Part Two Pappas does much to clarify the point of Barthes’ and Foucault’s arguments, and Walker is concerned directly with the impact of those arguments on feminist literary criticism (and not with author constructs).

Irwin’s essay summaries also do not do enough to enhance the sense of dialogue. Because the chapters diverge so significantly in methods and assumptions, a more substantive and thematic introductory essay would have provided a welcome clarification of their interconnections. Within the chapters one can find different interpretations of the death-of-the-author thesis, different conceptions of how it relates to the role of authorial intention in interpretation, different conceptions of interpretation itself. Students without the requisite background will have difficulty untangling these complex issues. I would recommend that professors who direct their students to the volume for research purposes be familiar with the contents, so that they can direct students to those essays specifically relevant to their purposes.

Since much of the volume will already be familiar to those with interests in the subject matter, I will restrict discussion of particulars to the four previously unpublished essays. These are among the most accessible of the readings in the collection, and each presents an interestingly different perspective on the relevance of authorial intention and author constructs to interpretation.

In his contribution, Irwin argues that intentionalists, who take interpretation to aim at the recovery of authorial intention, need to posit an author construct because “an intentionalist can never hope to ‘have’ the real historical author. All we ever have is a more or less accurate version of him as related to his text, an author construct.” He develops a construct called an ‘urauthor,’ to be created “in the likeness of the original, the author herself,” but including “only what is relevant for interpretation.” The point that author constructs are consistent with reliance on authorial intention is not made often enough. Since author constructs are just that – constructs that emerge from interpretation rather than preceding it – it should be an independent question whether and to what extent facts about the historical writer should constrain their formation. However, I do not find compelling Irwin’s justification of the urauthor. If the claim is just that what we cannot possibly know (including certain facts about intention) cannot be relevant to interpretation, then it is trivially true, and nothing follows about author constructs. It is more consistent for an intentionalist to maintain that the fallibility of the evidence indicates only that we might be wrong about what the historical author meant, not that we are right about the characteristics of an author construct.

Jason Holt defends the reader’s freedom of interpretation against both intentionalism and constructivism, developing a version of the death-of-the-author thesis (DOA) on which all that is required for interpretation is a mere “presumption of intent.” But he points out that even if we accept DOA, another source of repression looms: linguistic and literary conventions. According to Holt, the DOA advocate should admit that intended and conventional meaning entail interpretive closure, but deny that they limit the reader’s freedom to determine “aesthetic meaning,” which varies from reader to reader. Holt’s article provides a useful overview of the issues surrounding DOA, and he makes a good case that by itself, DOA is insufficient to liberate readers in the way envisioned by Barthes and Foucault. Intentionalists could, however, accept Holt’s conclusions without giving up their own. Irwin, for example, following Hirsch in distinguishing between meaning (determined by intentions and conventions) and significance (interpretations relevant to the reader), could simply classify Holt’s aesthetic meaning in the latter category. Holt’s real point is the insistence that we have no good reason to privilege intended or conventional meaning over the reader’s personal interpretation; but this conclusion – so contrary to our actual interpretive practice – requires more defense than Holt provides.

Dan Weberman’s superbly lucid reconstruction of Gadamer’s textual hermeneutics offers a middle position between intentionalists like Irwin and anti-intentionalists like Holt. Weberman details six reasons that Gadamer rejects the identification of textual meaning with the author’s intended meaning, for example that there is both more and less in the text than the author intended, and that our interest in a text is “to discover truths about the world and ourselves,” not what the author thinks. Weberman argues, however, that Gadamer still finds authorial intention relevant in two ways: first, trying to understand a text as created with a single purpose is a useful heuristic for making sense of it as a coherent whole; and second, the author’s intention provides a narrow “regulative constraint” that helps guard against blatant misunderstandings. Weberman’s reconstruction of Gadamer (leaving aside the question of accuracy, which I cannot judge) presents a concisely articulated set of arguments that intentionalists and anti-intentionalists need to address, while at the same time carving out a more plausible position than either extreme. And although Weberman does not take up the issue of author constructs, his development of Gadamer’s ideas resembles in no small measure the considerations that Nehamas brings to bear in arguing for his postulated author. For students interested in the relationship between intention and author constructs, the connections between these views promise a fruitful line of investigation.

Eric Bronson’s engaging essay, the last in the volume, explains why Cervantes’s Don Quixote complicates certain assumptions made by the preceding papers. Cervantes multiplies author-figures within the text, at the same time undermining their authority through irony and self-deprecating humor. It might appear, therefore, that he is making an argument against reliance on authorial intention; but appearances can be deceiving. The fact that Cervantes took pains to defend the authenticity of his text against a faked version of Don Quixote indicates, Bronson persuasively argues, that he does care about authorial intention after all. “The author, Cervantes tells us, is not reliable, and this should affect the way the reader reads the text. By disguising authors, Cervantes does not disguise his intentions; on the contrary, he reveals them.” Cervantes’s intention, according to Bronson, was precisely to promote multiple interpretations. I found Bronson’s focus on a particular case study salutary. Debates over authorial intention sometimes seem to take place several levels of abstraction away from the authors and works that motivate them. And this particular example is especially useful, not only because Cervantes’s method highlights the possibility that authors may intend to encourage the proliferation of meaning, but also because we cannot explain away his method by attributing it to specifically postmodern concerns. I suspect that most authors of literary works share Cervantes’s desire that readers engage with their texts in multifarious ways. If that is right, it looks as though intentionalists and anti-intentionalists might be closer together than many have thought.

Whatever conclusions they draw, readers with sufficient background to engage with the essays in this thought-provoking collection will certainly come away deeper insight into the issues raised by authorial intention and author constructs.