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Should authorial intention be invoked when deriving meaning from a work? 

Can it be invoked? 

What is “intentional fallacy”? 

Broadly, it is the idea that the meaning of a work does not originate with the author's intention.  Authors are unreliable beings; what they say their work means may not be what it means at all, and in any case there can be a huge discrepancy between intention and end result.  At the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago Elizabeth Jolley summed it up when she was asked by a member of the audience for the meaning of her novel, The Well (1986).  She said:  “I have written what I have written.  It's up to you to work it out”. 

The concepts of “intentional fallacy” and “affective fallacy” began with W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946).  Literary criticism at that time was heavily reliant on author-biography approaches, and Wimsatt and Beardsley put forward the radical idea that for literary works arguments about interpretation are not settled by consulting the oracle that is the author.  The meaning of a work is not what the writer had in mind at some moment during composition of the work, or what the writer thinks the work means after it is finished, but, rather, what he or she succeeded in embodying in the work.  The “affective fallacy” (from an essay published three years later in 1949) is the idea that subjective effects or emotional reactions a work provokes in readers are irrelevant to the study of the verbal object itself, since its objective structure alone contains the meaning of the work.

The intentional fallacy is part of the arguments of American New Criticism, which holds that the proper object of literary study is literary texts and how they work rather than authors' lives or the social and historical worlds to which literature refers.  The “intentional fallacy” names the act of delimiting the object of literary study and separating it from biography or sociology.  The meaning resides in the literary work itself, and not in statements regarding his or her intention that the author might make.  These statements become separate texts that may become subject to a separate analysis. 

The New Critics used the method of “close reading” to arrive at interpretation of a text.  Close reading is the elucidation of the way literature embodies or concretely enacts universal truth.  These truths were called “concrete universals”.  Of course this method has since been questioned and challenged on many grounds, particularly the neglect of context and the belief in universal truth. 

The response to claims that the author's intention was irrelevant came with E.D. Hirsch's, Validity in Interpretation (1967) which opposed the stance taken by the New Critics and Wimsatt and Beardsley, arguing rather harshly that the intentional fallacy is a “false and facile dogma that what an author intended is irrelevant to the meaning of the text”.  It must be remembered that this was a time immediately after Freud, where there was a tendency to see literature as the symptom of the author's mind.  Also, the figure of the author was seen as a genius, so the intentional fallacy argument raised a few hackles among those who saw meaning as the privilege of the author and the product of his or her genius.

Hirsch argued that the only possible source for determining what a work means is the author. In his intentionalist view, words cannot mean anything by themselves, so their meaning must be determined by a mind: the author or the critic. The critic may aid authors in bringing their meaning out into the world.

Beardsley's response to Hirsch was that some texts have no authors, yet still have meaning (such as computer generated poems), authors die without commenting on their works, and words can change their meaning over time.  Also, aside from the occasional visit to a writers' festival or literary lunch, there is no discourse between author and reader for clarification.

Roland Barthes' essay “The Death of the Author” (1968) resumed the debate about author and intention.  He attacks the common and traditional view of the author as the ultimate “explanation” of a work.  The author ceases to be a figure who creates meaning.  Instead, meaning is created by the reader, who also takes over as the prime source of power in the text.  In this respect, the last line of Barthes's essay is a memorable one: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. 

Michel Foucault's essay “What Is An Author?” (1969) extends Barthes's argument by saying that the idea of the author as a source of meaning has been substituted with other concepts and ideas which keep up the authorial privileges.  The author's function limits meaning and the author should therefore be done away with.

In summary, and Elizabeth Jolley would have agreed, the author may write the text, but he or she does not (and should not) have the last word. 

 

 

 

 

 

Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National