There are many roads to interpretation: The Intentional Fallacy

There are many roads to interpretation: The Intentional Fallacy

Hello, readers! The past two weeks have been rather busy. With everyone frantic over finals, holiday work schedules, and family gatherings we have not been able to write any new articles, and for that I am sorry. However, today we are going to get back to business by discussing a principle of analysis that still serves as a subject of debate in many circles.

The intentional fallacy, an aspect of New Criticism, posits that the author does not have the final say regarding the interpretation of their work, if they have any say at all.

We're not actually killing this guy; we just don't care about what he has to say. Sort of.

We’re not actually killing this guy; we just don’t care about what he has to say. Sort of.

This idea, proposed by Roland Barthes in the essay, “The Death of the Author,” is mostly accepted by the academic community but is a contentious subject among many consumers of literature and entertainment. Popular culture has long been fascinated with the creators of works, sometimes more than the works themselves, and, as such, cults of personality often develop around entertainment creators. More often than not, fans of these artists interpret their works, by filtering the creations through the common perceptions or personal understandings of the artists, to determine what the creation says about the person or team that created it. This method of interpretation, called auteurism, enables critics and consumers alike to chart the growth and development of their favorite artists, as each new work is analyzed by the barometer of the creator’s canon of work then placed or ranked within that canon.

The New Critics sought to change the way literature was analyzed. Up to that point, literature was exclusively analyzed from historical and authorial contexts, but the New Critics believed the literature should completely speak for itself. Historic context and authorial intention were not completely excluded but the were removed from the centre of the theoretical approach. New Criticism finds tension, irony, and paradox within the text of a work for the purpose of bringing them into unity.

Do not assume one interpretation is the only correct one.

Do not assume one interpretation is the only correct one.

Despite the insistence of the New Critics (whom nobody really listens to anymore), this method of analysis is perfectly acceptable in many contexts. Problems arise, however, when critics and consumers operate under the assumption that auteur interpretation is the only acceptable interpretation of a work. If the work is created by the artist, then why should their opinion not matter? Its simple: Every work of art speaks for itself. The artist can have all the intentions in the world, but that does not mean those intentions translate into their art.

For instance: If the author’s word is the only one that matters, then Stephanie Myers’s Twilight is a chilling meditation on the perils of temptation instead of the sloppily written abstinence porn that it is.

Many works of art do lend themselves well to specific approaches. For example: Slaughterhouse Five lends itself well to an Auteurist reading, as Kurt Vonnegut’s life experiences (for the most part) are written into every page. American Beauty, on the other hand, works well with a Marxist reading, because socio-economic status plays a large part in the narrative. However, these works are not limited to a single interpretation.

Where both the New Critics and Auteur Theorists have perfectly viable approaches, neither should be the sole interpretation of a work. Every critical approach provides a unique and valuable take on a work of art. The New Critics emphasize close reading, which digs into the minutia of a work to examine what the details say about whole. Auteur Theory examines the art within its cultural context. Both approaches have their merits and flaws and neither should be discounted.

The intentional fallacy does not limit interpretation; it is just one out of many. Any critic can take or leave it as they see fit and that is okay. In fact, if you do not agree with someone’s interpretation of a work of art, write your own interpretation. A thriving critical environment needs multiple voices to remain healthy.

Now, go out there and write your interpretations. Just write in an intelligible language and use a computer if you want to share it on the internet.

Now, go out there and write your interpretations. Just write in an intelligible language and use a computer if you want to share it on the internet.