Off the map

While I’ve been mostly absent from my own site, I’ve been haunting a few comment threads:

  • In a series of comments to Joseph Kugelmass’s “The Haunting Wordsworth: Romantic Poets and Monkeys With Typewriters” post at the Valve, I take up a series of positions about the role of intention and intentionality in meaning. I argue, against Knapp and Michael’s position in “Against Theory,” that meaning is not reducible to authorial intention. At the same time, I argue against John Holbo’s attempt to get out of “Against Theory” by defining meaning in functional terms. Knapp & Michael’s are wrong, I suggest, not because they define meaning in terms of the origin of an utterance, but rather because of the assumptions they make about that origin: they assume that human discourse necessarily originates in a singular intention capable of grounding the meaning of an utterance, assumptions which I counter with the notion of a “split origin” and De Man’s comments on the craftsman as copyist. An excerpt:

    If the craftsman can learn to blindly copy without knowing what he copies … then the functionality of the object is not contingent on the craftsman’s intention. We might still account for the origin in terms of function (maybe the only reason there was a chair there to copy was because chairs are good for sitting on, and this particular chair would not exist without there being a chair there to copy), but the origin is no longer the labor of the craftsman (the origin is the original chair), and the ontology of the object is no longer controlled by his intention. This, I would suggest, is exactly what happens in language, composed as it is of borrowed words, phrases, metaphors, genre forms, etc. from multiple overlapping traditions that one cannot master, gathered without necessarily being guided by a fixed intention. In this way, Knapp & Michaels aren’t really stating a tautology – even when the word “meaning” is used to refer exclusively to origin, there can be intentionless meaning because writing is not inherently driven by intention.

    Another way to explain this is to say that deconstruction formulates a “split origin,” an origin that is never one, never present, whether as a conscious intention of the author (What would this even mean? Would a conscious intention be language in the thoughts of the author? What, then would ground the meaning of these thought-words?) or even as unconscious intention insofar as the unconscious is thought of as an entity (homologous to consciousness but inaccessible to it) rather than a process by which the uncontrollable play of copies inscribe a trace. This would amount to saying that all writing is similar in certain ways to Wordsworth’s words appearing on a beach – if all there is is author’s intention, then all poetry, or at least the best, no longer counts as language, in K & M’s definition, precisely because it doesn’t originate in an empirical, psychological intention, but rather in the intentionless literary act that can be belatedly hypostatized into the intentional structure of a literary object.

    [I’ve dropped out of the comment thread towards the end and am no longer following it, so if you plan to revive the discussion over there, please drop me a note]

  • In a comment thread to Adam Roberts’s “Three Answers to Riddle 69,” again at The Valve, I gave an alternate answer to the riddle of the sphinx, which I’m working on in relation to Baudelaire’s Spleen (II). An interesting discussion of how riddles work quickly ensued, and has ended up in an ongoing debate about the role of context in interpretation, in part revolving around the validity of Adam’s suggestion that “milk” can count as an answer to the Anglo-Saxon riddle “On the way, a miracle: water becomes bone,” Riddle 69 from the Exeter Book. The answer is normally considered to be “ice” (reading “water” literally and “bone” as a metaphor for solidity), but by an almost symmetrical series of operations (reading “water” as a metaphor for liquidity and “bone” literally) the answer can also be “milk,” insofar as milk is a liquid that builds strong bones. The problem arises in that milk would not have been available as an answer in the original Anglo-Saxon context of the riddle, assuming a lack of knowledge about the role of milk in building bones. I’m not entirely sure what claims I will settle on here, but I’m supporting the “milk” answer on the grounds that it follows the same set of rules as the answer “ice.” The original context puts forth a code and a grammar, a series of more or less stable rules, that produce unanticipated results exceeding the original context. In short, context cannot provide a stable criteria for interpretation, insofar as it produces repeatable structures of meaning whose rule-governed play it cannot control. The attempt to limit acceptable answers to those available in the original context actually requires us to make a lot of assumptions about the role of “context” as a criteria of meaning in Anglo-Saxon culture, and to subordinate Anglo-Saxon notions of context to the disciplinary assumptions of contemporary Old English historicist scholarship. I’m not entirely happy with the way I’ve carried on my side of the discussion so far, but I’m even less happy with the way the guy I’m discussing with is carrying on with his side: he has a tendency to overgeneralize how “language works” based on very specific examples of utterances like “Is there salt on the table?” which cannot universally represent the complexities of other, less referential types of language.  Anyway, I’m beginning to see the end game, which, I guess, I’ve sort of just given away…
  • Unlike myself, uncomplicatedly is back from her pre-exam disappearance from the blogosphere.  Her new post features an excellent reading of Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” in which she argues that “Frost is the beginning of … an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century.”  I try to complicate this a bit by pointing to the poem’s peculiar use of tense, and asking whether this practice of humble attention succeeds in bringing its objects into greater focus or merely marking a certain aporia in the act of attention itself.

Commenting has been productive for me.  It requires less initiative than posting from scratch and has a certain internal momentum to it that keeps me writing.  The back and forth exchanges have required me to constantly adapt my positions and develop a greater awareness of where I stand.   Inhabiting someone else’s space, people also seem more willing to engage directly with my positions – the playing field is sort of leveled in a way that it isn’t on my home territory.  I do plan to return to blogging here, though: expect an occasional post until April, including another set of year end best of lists currently in the works, then hopefully more consistent output after I take my exams.


~ by Matt on November 19, 2007.

One Response to “Off the map”

  1. I linked to your irony posts on a course blog I teach at Royal Holloway (‘Theories of Laughter’); hope you don’t mind …
    (The blog doubles up; this term it’s for ‘Theories of Laughter’, next term it’ll be for the ‘Tragedy’ course I teach).

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