Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Reading

I don't think I can overstate the influence Roland Barthes' “The Death of the Author” has had on me. It (along with chapter one of this book) launched the line of inquiry that led me to my current studies, which makes it basically responsible for both my current life and my foreseeable future.

I'm still wrestling with it, because I am still trying to figure out the concept of authorial intent. Mostly, I think I'm with Barthes: externally established authorial intent is of no account; we have no access to the psychological state of the author as ey was writing; and we should want no such access beyond what we have in the text itself. Ricoeur makes this a little clearer, I think, by distinguishing in speech between the utterer's meaning (what the speaker intends to say) and the utterance meaning (what the sentence in fact says), and explaining that in written discourse we only have access to the latter. What I get from this is that if “what the text says” and “what you meant to say” are not the same thing, that's your fault for not writing it better.

But there's an additional layer of complication, which is: is there any such thing as “what the text says”? Texts don't have mouths. They don't say anything unless somebody reads – that is, interprets – them. So I'll refine that accusation: if “what somebody reads in your text” and “what you meant to say” are not the same thing, that's your fault for not writing it better.

But is that fair? It's the principle I generally operate on, but it's hard work. If, say, someone calls me out for problematic assumptions in something I wrote, my first instinct is to defend myself by 'splaining, “That's not what I meant!” But I stop. I remind myself that intent is not magic. I remind myself that externally established authorial intent does not matter. I wrote what I wrote, and if even one person reads something problematic there, the problem lies with what I wrote, not with eir reading of it.

But. But.

I also have a belief – a tenuous belief, a belief I am struggling with, a belief to whose demolition I am open, but a belief nonetheless – that anyone can read anything in(to) any text. And is it then fair to hold the author responsible for everything that could be read into eir text?

Anyone can read anything in(to) any text. Does that mean you can take “A Modest Proposal” at face value, ignoring its satirical intent? Does that mean you can reformat “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in”and declare it a short story, rather than a poem? Does that mean you can replace every instance of the word “nunnery” in Hamlet Act III Scene I with “ham sandwich”?

Well... I don't like that phrasing. I don't like telling people what they can and can't do with texts. Of course you can do any of those things. You have a find and replace function in your word processing software. And I take a First Amendment approach to reading texts – I believe you have the right to read any way you want to. I also believe that everyone in the entire world has the right to tell you that your “Get thee to a ham sandwich” reading of Hamlet is utterly ridiculous.

But you know what? You don't have to listen to the entire world. If you find more meaning in “Get thee to a ham sandwich” than in “Get thee to a nunnery”, you can do that to Hamlet. Really. It's called fanfiction.

At its best, fanfiction is a glorious corrective, an enactment of what-might-have-been. “Get thee to a ham sandwich” is a flippant example, but there are countless examples of people rewriting texts that spoke to them, and making them speak better. Star Trek fan who wishes TOS had more women in it? Gender-flip Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Twilight fan unhappy with its total queer erasure? Make a Jakeward slashvid. Rationalist Harry Potter fan? Rewrite the series with a rationalist Harry Stu.

Fanwork is awesome because it blurs or even erases the boundary between reading a text and writing it. There's no clearer demonstration of my belief that all readings are also writings.

However – if all readings are also writings, to what extent can an author be held accountable? Death of the author is a great concept, but in this world of internet discourse that's neither exactly speech or exactly writing, author accountability matters. And comments sections mean that, when it comes to blog posts and tweets and Facebook status updates, we can have access to the utterer's meaning as well as the utterance meaning.

This idea that what we're doing online is a whole new form of discourse still needs a lot of work, and I'm getting pretty excited about doing some of it.

1 comment:

  1. I think there arises the simple problem that intentionality does hold some moral weight within our society. This gets expanded into writing in certain ways. Libel as a crime is clearly dependent on the author's intention, as is copyright issues regarding parody.

    In some ways, I feel that it is not reasonable to say that authorial intent is irrelevant, yet also to hold author responsible for the effects of their work. Things can be too easily misrepresented, misinterpreted, and other such things.