Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Kasey weighs in on intention, arguing that "If we don't know something about [the author], her education, her politics, her personal relationships, her intentions, the text doesn't mean as fully or successfully what it's 'supposed' to mean."

Absolutely. My skepticism about intention as a category isn't a ploy to lock the author up in some kind of New Critical black box. It was mostly a reaction to the weird way intention seemed to be popping up as a trump card in political and legal debates--in particular, as a trump card meant to shut down interpretation. The New Critical critique of intention as a category is ingrained and undergraduate-basic enough that it seems like an easy piece of ammunition to use in response. But it's obviously full of problems itself, especially if it's taken to mean that there's nothing but the "text itself" floating in a vacuum.

Kasey's Frankenstein example is a fascinating one, and a good case where appealing to authorial intention might provide a more radical, rather than a more conservative, interpretation. But I do wonder whether intention helps us determine which kinds of readings "co-opt" a text and which don't, or if co-optive readings are in general a bad thing. Much contemporary literary criticism, particularly that which sees itself as politically radical, relies on what might fairly be called co-optive readings of older texts; take, for example, readings and appropriations of Shakespeare's Tempest as an anti-colonial or even postcolonial text. We could hardly justify these in terms of any intention of Shakespeare's; yet there is something in Shakespeare's text that makes such readings plausible, even compelling.

Or take Pound's Cantos. In seeing--as many do--the Cantos as the forerunner of contemporary radical and deconstructive (and left-wing) poetics, one obviously has to read against Pound's very clearly stated (and right-wing) intentions, especially his totalitarian demand to make it all "cohere." It could well be argued that insofar as the Cantos remain a vital, rather than discredited, text for us, they do so because of the extent to which Pound failed to fulfill his intentions.

It could simply be that the idea of "intention" I'm comfortable with is a weak rather than a strong one. The strong idea of intention in reading is, I'd wager, the more collquially accepted one: intention is something behind the words, what the author really meant to say, something that extends beyond the mere text on the page. It's obvious why this is a compelling idea both in literary study and in the law, which are all about trying to figure out what the heck is meant by language that's often ambiguous. But it's also fatally flawed. For example: I talked a while back about my conscious attempt to write an "Asian American" poem, which I fully intended to be a parody of the genre. But I failed in my execution, producing a poem that could only sporadically be read as parody and often just looked "straight," sincere. I'll grant that knowing my intention would illuminate the parodic element of the poem; but reading the poem itself would produce an implied "intention" that would be much more complex; one could even argue, perhaps more plausibly, that at various points I didn't even know what my own intention was.

This implied intention is, I think, what I mean by a weak version of intention, and maybe the only reliable one. What I said my intention was is surely a useful piece of evidence for the literary scholar, who could use it to bolster an argument. But ultimately what I said is just another text to read. I could have been wrong; I could have been lying or deceiving myself; I could be a kind of idiot savant who writes brilliant poems in spite of the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing. My weaker version of intention is, admittedly, largely a textual construct, an artifact of reading; but I'm not really sure there could be another kind.

Since this all started as an admittedly amateur discussion of constitutional law, let's take a current example: the anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution now being supported by President Bush. While it's by no means clear what form this amendment will eventually take, a version, H.J. Res. 56, has been introduced in the House of Representatives, and consists of just two sentences:

Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.

If we were to inquire into the intentions behind this text, what would we find? Most of the national politicans who say they support this amendment, including the resolution's sponsor and the President, publicly deny that it is intended as a piece of anti-gay discrimination. Indeed, they would probably deny that it has anything to do with gays at all; it is simply what it seems to be, a mere, common-sense definition ("Marriage...shall consist only of...") that serves to "defend" an already existing institution. Some supporters of the amendment are even saying that they don't mean it to ban something like civil unions, which are nowhere explicitly mentioned.

I'm guessing that very few people on either side of the debate would really believe such statements. But we also obviously can't probe the minds of the speakers and see what their "true" intentions are. So there we have it: explicit statements of intention (this amendment is not meant to discriminate), and a text. And in this case, it's only the text that can reveal, to a limited degree, what I suspect would be a more accurate reading of the authors' intentions.

The text posits a legal status--"marriage"--and states that it is something that can only be attained by "a man and a woman." Am I correct in thinking that this would be the only place in the Constitution where the word "woman" appears? I wonder if this might be one of the most dangerous distinctions in the amendment: rather than the spirit of other federal laws, which ban discrimination based on sex, this enshrines in the Constitution the idea that there are two separate kinds of legal person--a man and a woman--raising the idea that the federal government has to have some criteria for telling the difference. I'm not being facetious; this would imply that the federal government would have to develop a legal, not biological or social, framework of gender difference. Of course, the authors of the amendment would likely dismiss my objection as silly; "of course," they would say, "we know the difference between a man and a woman." But I'd argue that the "a man and a woman" phraseology reveals one broader assumption--even, intention--behind the amendment: that the gender binary is fundamental to our social and legal system (indeed, to our civilization) and must be shored up and defended in a way that it never has before. Since it hardly seems plausible that we have suddenly ceased to be able to tell the difference between men and women, the only explanation can be that same-sex relationships are seen as so threatening to the social order that we must suddenly be told that our society now consists of men and women, as two separate categories--an entire new legal structure of discrimination, implemented just so "marriage" can have a fixed definition.

Having defined marriage, the amendment goes on to offer what seems like a simple corollary: the benefits of marriage won't be extended to those who aren't married. But of course what the second sentence does is create--negatively, of course--a whole new legal class of people: the "unmarried," those who cannot enter into the legal state of marriage and and are formally excluded from "the legal incidents thereof." By failing to observe the terms of "a man and a woman," gays and lesbians--an entire and definable class of persons--have been placed outside the benefits and protections of a particular legal status. This is no accident; this is exactly the intended effect, but it's an intention that's legible not in the explicit statements of the authors but in (egads) the text, and the broader context from which it emerges.

Finally, I'd note that one of the strangest things about this amendment is that it is explicitly designed to forestall interpretation. It's not telling the government what it can and can't do; it's telling us (and, presumably, the courts) how we can and can't read or even think: it's a chilling assertion that things are as they are now, and cannot ever change, even in imagination.

P.S. It looks like I was giving a bit too much credit to the intentions of the amendment's congressional sponsor, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, whose scary remarks on her proposal do raise the specter of the "gay and lesbian lobby" (just as well funded, I'm sure, as those energy and oil companies) destroying our society. Guess all my effort at close reading wasn't really necessary. But believe it or not, she does use the word "deconstruct."

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