Saturday, February 28, 2009

A question of legitimacy

It was a difference of opinion that led to horseracing.
- Mark Twain quoted in South Australian Register, 10/15/1895
Unreal Nature has an interesting piece up about art as communication (mainly textual, i.e. creative writing, but should be the inclusive definition: writing, painting, photography, etc. See Vehicle for Intentional Communication). In her usual modus operendi, she quotes from a Review (frequently, of late, The Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) and follows with pithy comments and discussion.

From the Review by David Osipovich of Arts and Minds, by Gregory Currie, comes this seminal quote:
There is one essay, one of the previously unpublished ones, that is not only interesting in its own right but also deals explicitly with the book’s general theme of aesthetics’ dependence on other philosophical and empirical disciplines. The essay is entitled “Interpretation and Pragmatics”, and argues for author-intentionalism – the highly contentious view that interpretation of narrative art works involves deciphering in some way the intentions of the work’s author. (emphasis added)
Currie believes that aesthetics must be informed by other philosophical and empirical disciplines, that aesthetic activity is a psychological activity. And the act of aesthetic interpretation is a species of communication generally.
Currie further refines his argument by differentiating two basic claims made by author-intentionalism: “1) We use the text, together with various other things, to come up with the best ideas we can about what the author intended to convey; 2) legitimate interpretations are exactly those that correspond with what the author intended to convey.”

Unreal Nature goes on to quote the reviewer of this work, David Osipovich:
Isn’t it simply enough to say that a legitimate interpretation must be supported by the text? Why is it necessary to add that an author must have been capable of reasonably intending any legitimate interpretation? What does talk of intentions gain us here?
And yet Currie talks about distinguishing “legitimate” interpretations from “illegitimate” ones, which is clearly an axiological concern. Does the empirical study of how people really interpret the things they hear and read explain what interpretation is and must be, or does it help us distinguish good interpretations from bad ones?
(Axiology: the study of quality or value; I had to look it up)

This criticism, i.e. that one cannot demand THE interpretation of a text to be the one the author intended, seems to be agreed to by both Unreal Nature and the Osipovich. Yet there still remains "good" interpretations and "bad" interpretations.
Once, when I was a kid, our 7th grade class was put out on the new football field at recess time (in the South, Football was God's game). The field had a lot of small rocks on it and our task was to pick up these rocks and heave them into the woods on the one side of the field (little mind that one classmate heaved it through the woods and onto a passing car, to much fanfare.) But, before this latter incident, we had an interesting development. One colleague had tried to pick up a rock but discovered that it extended down into the ground. Of course, this prompted an attempt to dig around the rock to remove it. Of course, you know what happened, digging around the rock simply uncovered vast new vistas of rock. This was the primal rock. We felt it was likely that the rock extended to the center of the earth if not to China. Eventually, the bottom was found. A back hoe removed it and we went back to class.

Moral 1: When you start digging, bring lunch.
Moral 2: When commenting on something from Unreal Nature, bring lunch.

I am, of course, not certified to comment on this topic, but I will. (I am certified, but that's another story.) And that brings up the question as to who, exactly, is certified to comment on the interpretations of textual and, we certainly must include, other art. I am vaguely aware that since I studied things formally in college there has been a revolution in textual analysis (Derrida, etc. I could not resist this quote about deconstruction: "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.")

From all of this, one might assume the Critics are the only ones with legitimacy in interpreting art. Critics being those who, we assume, have extensively studied works in the particular field of the art work. However, this would leave us with very few valid commentators or, on the other hand, if one considers the genre of the popular novel, anyone who reads it. In particular, I would wholeheartedly agree with Unreal Nature and Osipovich the there is not one interpretation and that the one that the author/artist intended. (Actually, I would go much further, latent sixties radical that I am.)

Why does any of this matter? I don't imagine anyone reads a novel or other creative writing with the idea that he/she will enjoy the work only by discovering what the author was trying to "say," as if there were a gigantic rock of meaning below the text of which we mere mortals can only uncover a pebble. The fact is, when we read something, we have no choice as to how we interpret it. It is possible, after the fact, to go back and interpret it differently (e.g. all those college English courses on Shakespeare's Sonnets), and we might say, ah ha, this might have been what Shakespeare meant. But, in the initial pass, again, we have no choice.

We bring to any work of art a whole panelopy of different beliefs and emotions. It even makes a difference where we read something (on a plane, in your chair) and what you ate for dinner.

Now, to legitimacy in this endeavor. If an interpretation is legitimate, it means another interpretation is illegitimate; something is the "wrong" interpretation. This is a rather pejorative thing to hoist onto the poor reader, particularly one who has really no choice in the matter. But, I suppose it is an age old situation. The teacher always asks the student what the author "meant" when he/she said something. Woe to the student who thinks Oedipus is just randy.

Of course any argument I make for unfettered thought has its pulldown on the other side. I guess I would recommend Nabokov's (1980) Lectures on Literature. These were lectures delivered at Harvard. Made me sit up and think about Jane Austen.


Julie Heyward said...

I wish you would not have left me hanging with that last bit about Nabokov. After much Googling, I've found out that he lectured on seven authors. Five of them make sense, but I can't for the life of me imagine Nabokov liking Austen (and just barely can imagine him appreciating Dickens).

(I don't suppose there's any chance you'd like to show us a picture of 13-year-old Dr. C in pads and helmet, preferably in a fierce pose?)

Dr. C said...

Of course it was Northanger Abbey. I suspect it is as hard to think of Nabokov liking Austen as to think that the 30 somethings in "The Jane Austen Bookclub" actually read it.

Julie Heyward said...

The 30 somethings in "The Jane Austen Bookclub" come and go, talking of Brangelina.