The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0433  Thursday, 24 July 2008

From:       David Schalkwyk <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Wednesday, 23 Jul 2008 05:25:56 +0200
Subject:    SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions (Addendum)

I've just rejoined the land of electronic communication to see that I've being 
able to contribute to Cary's last Roundtable Digest. I'm pleased to see, 
however, his invitation to continue the discussion as part of the normal 
conversation. I'd like to thank Cary for being a superb co-ordinator, as well as 
my fellow contributors for their tough but open-minded engagement.

My desire to say one more thing stems from Larry Weiss's lament (on 10 July) 
that the "distinction between what an author intended by his words (critical 
analysis) and what words the author intended to use (textual analysis)" has not 
been "addressed explicitly." I think that Larry is right that this distinction 
is closely related to Duncan Salkeld's insistence that at "a naively holistic 
level, intentionality is entirely vapid. But when examining particular textual 
details and their relationships, intention becomes not only a question worth 
raising but sometimes essential." Clarifying this distinction will also, I hope, 
cast light on my own "flip-flop" between declaring intention inescapable and 
ultimately entirely heuristic or even redundant.

I responded to the distinction that Larry makes in an earlier post, where I 
pointed out that the kind of intention that informs the words an author meant to 
use is invoked by some philosophers as "categorical" intention. Such intention 
also encompasses what Hugh Grady calls "aesthetic" meaning: that is to say, the 
intention to write a play of a particular genre with a specific, but broadly 
conceived, aesthetic effect and affect.

Leaving aside for the moment whether such "aesthetic meaning" is or is not 
necessarily conceptual, I think a good case can be made for the position that to 
speak of these things (this or that word? a play or an epic? a tragedy or a 
comedy?) must involve an appeal to intention, or is considerably helped by an 
appeal to what the author wanted to do (of course, the author may, for a number 
of reasons, not have succeeded). However, I think an equally good case can be 
made for the position that when it comes to deciding on the meaning of these 
words, or that passage, or those images, an appeal to an author's intention is 
not only unnecessary, but can in fact be positively unhelpful (see my argument 
relating the heuristic nature of intention, its redundancy, and the fact that 
the appeal to intention is in these cases a rhetorical ploy in an essentially 
political debate).

Now the intriguing question is: what is the difference? Why intention in one 
case but not in the other? The answer, I propose, lies not in the nature of 
intention, but rather in that of language. It's the introduction of meaning that 
severely attenuates (even if it does not negate) the controlling reach of 
intention. I can intend to use "solid" rather than "sullied", and it makes sense 
to ask which word I meant to use (even if there is too little evidence to decide 
the matter). But when an interpreter asks about the meaning of "solid" rather 
than "sullied", he or she is invoking not a binary choice between two 
signifiers, but rather a complex set of relations to other signifiers and 
contexts (local and historical) through which a signified (or signifieds) are 
produced that lie beyond the controlling or determining ambit of any intention. 
The choice of signifiers is intentionally driven, but the production of 
signifieds ultimately escapes intention. (The latter is Derrida's argument that 
intention cannot control the filed of meaning.)  Humpty Dumpty is wrong to say 
that words mean what he wants them to mean; he would be right, however, to say 
that only he can chose to use these rather than those words.

The interesting thing about this argument is that it shows that whether we can 
know a particular intention or not is irrelevant in both cases. There may not be 
sufficient evidence to determine whether Shakespeare intended to use "solid" 
rather than "sullied", but that does not mean that it is illegitimate to 
approach the question via the concept of intention. On the other hand, an author 
may tell us what s/he intended a text to mean, but there is no reason to believe 
him or her if our reading the text contradicts this (_Mansfield Park_ is about 
ordination?)  Here we trust the tale, not the teller. This means that the 
question of knowledge of an author's intentions is irrelevant to the issue about 
whether we should be talking about intentions at all. It's a conceptual, not an 
epistemological issue.

Another noteworthy point is that in practice questions of a textual sort are 
determined by decisions of an interpretive bent. So, in the absence of any firm 
evidence about whether Shakespeare meant to use "solid" rather than "sullied" 
(or "sallied"--or "rest" rather than "rust" in _R&J_) editors and critics will 
decide on the basis of which signifier fits best with their overall reading of 
the meaning of the speech, character or situation. It may be for this reason 
that Duncan wishes to retain an appeal to intention as a necessity: to determine 
the factual details of a text independently of a favorite interpretation of that 
text, or to prevent a settled signified derived independently of what the author 
wanted as a signifier from determining the signifier that he could well have wanted.

This is very rough, and belated. But I hope it will be of interest to some, and 
I trust that I will be corrected where I have gone egregiously wrong.


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