The “anonymity of a murmur” and the so-called Intentional Fallacy

In “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault says that

as our society changes… the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode… All discourses… would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur.

I quoted this striking passage in my paper on memes, “The Anonymity of a Murmur: Internet (and Other) Memes,” because I think it well describes memes. Each, I said, was too ephemeral to be a distinctive work of art; but collectively, they “create a vast susurration that restlessly adapts itself to new technologies and new modes of expression and communication.”

Given this outlook on memes, there is a sense in which, in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I am creating anti-memes. By writing elaborate commentaries on my dozens of Batman memes, I am elevating each to the status of a properly-authored text, each one small, to be sure, but made by a real author in a real context that the commentaries, after their own idiosyncratic fashion, will attempt to bring out.

Of course, both the memes and the commentaries are by me but the commentaries are written as if by another person. So I am both author and critic. You will therefore not be surprised to learn that I have given a lot of thought to the so-called “Intentional Fallacy.” The so-called fallacy was a creation of the New Criticism, in an article by William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. As if in horror of their own mothers and the messiness and entanglement of our biological origins, those critics sought to elevate the work of art onto a cool, clean marble pedestal (like, oh say… a Grecian urn) and pretend that it didn’t come from the womb of someone’s mind. Indeed, their revulsion of origins extends, when taken to its logical conclusion, to the annihilation of a work’s context altogether. For how can one separate the maker’s intentions for her work from context in general? The philosopher Paul Grice, explaining how what a speaker means on a particular occasion is a function of what her communicative intentions are, makes the crucial point that we do not need to imagine a psychological examination of the speaker.

An utterer is held to intend to convey what is normally conveyed (or normally intended to be conveyed) [by his words] and we require a good reason for accepting that a particular use diverges from the general usage (e.g., he never knew or had forgotten the general usage). Similarly in nonlinguistic cases: we are presumed to intend the normal consequences of our action.

So the attribution of personal intention and a knowledge of context (to uncover what is normal in it) are inextricably linked. Wimsatt and Beardsley have in their sights not just the so-called Intentional Fallacy but a much wider so-called Contextual Fallacy.

New Criticism is no longer in fashion but for some obscure reason the Intentional Fallacy (so-called) persists in its grip on people’s imaginations like a shibboleth of a now-long-forgotten cult. I am not, to be sure, suggesting that artists get to tell others “what their work means” or “how to read their works correctly.” I don’t know what is meant by “the meaning of a work” or “a reading of a work.” But if we want to think about and discuss a work of art, how could an artist’s intentions regarding it not be of great potential interest? What could possibly lead us to exclude, a priori, such a rich source of information in our efforts to grapple with a work of art? Perhaps the context of the work’s birth will yield nothing of use – but who can say in advance?

When, as in my case, one is critic to one’s own artist (or perhaps more pertinently, artist to one’s own critic), the issue comes to a head. As critic, I have direct access to the artist’s intentions! Or, and here’s the rub, I would if I hadn’t forgotten a lot of them. The memes I am commenting on are, many of them, approaching their third birthday. I am their maker; and yet I am no longer their maker. He slips into the past keeping many of his secrets and I am now forced, like any other critic, to presume that I intended what is normally intended in such circumstances.


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