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In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intentionality is a concept referring to an author's intent as it is encoded in his or her work.

Contents

Literary theory

In literary studies, the question of the validity of the methods of determining authorial intent has been debated since the early twentieth century. New Criticism, as espoused by Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, T. S. Eliot, and others, argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. Preoccupation with intent was called by Wimsatt the intentional fallacy. The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing. The text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are purely extraneous. In psychoanalytic criticism, on the other hand, the author's biography and subconscious state were seen as part of the text, and therefore the author's intent could be revived from a literary text—although the intent might be a subconscious one.

In post-structuralism, there are a variety of approaches to authorial intent. For deconstruction, the authorial intent is again irrelevant and unknowable. Furthermore, the critic's will and intention are superior to the author's (cf. Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" and his S/Z). In other post-structuralist approaches, authorial intent exists as a psychological phenomenon, and texts endlessly recreate psycho-linguistic battles. For some of the theorists deriving from Jacques Lacan, and in particular theories variously called écriture féminine, gender and sex predetermine the ways that texts will emerge, and the language of textuality itself will present an argument that is potentially counter to the author's conscious intent.

For Marxist literary theorists, the author's intent is always a code for a particular set of ideologies in the author's own day. For Marxists (especially those of the Soviet Realism type), authorial intent is manifest in the text and must be placed in a context of liberation and the materialist dialectic. However, Marxist-derived theorists have seen authorial intent in a much more nuanced way. Raymond Williams, for example, posits literary productions always within a context of emerging, resistant, and synthetic ideological positions. The author's intent is recoverable from the text, but there is always encoded within it several separate positions. The author might be arguing consciously for empire, but hidden within that argument will be a response to a counterargument and a presentation of an emerging synthesis. Some members of the reception theory group (Hans Robert Jauss, in particular) have approximated the Marxist view by arguing that the forces of cultural reception reveal the ideological positions of both author and readership.

Reader Response critics view the authorial intent variously. In general, they have argued that the author's intent itself is immaterial and cannot be fully recovered. However, the author's intent will shape the text and limit the possible interpretations of a work. The reader's impression of the author's intent is a working force in interpretation, but the author's actual intent is not.

In textual criticism

Authorial intention is of great practical concern to some textual critics. These are known as intentionalists and are identified with the Bowers-Tanselle school of thought. Their editions have as one of their most important goals the recovery of the author's intentions (generally final intentions). When preparing a work for the press, an editor working along the principles outlined by Fredson Bowers and G. Thomas Tanselle will attempt to construct a text that is close to the author's final intentions. For transcription and typesetting, authorial intentionality can be considered paramount.

An intentionalist editor would constantly investigate the documents for traces of authorial intention. On one hand, it can be argued that the author always intends whatever the author writes and that at different points in time the same author might have very different intentions. On the other hand, an author may in some cases write something he or she did not intend. For example, an intentionalist would consider for emendation the following cases:

  • The authorial manuscript misspells a word: an error in intention, it is usually assumed. Editorial procedures for works available in no 'authorized editions' (and even those are not always exempt) often specify correcting such errors.
  • The authorial manuscript presents what appears to be a misformat of the text: a sentence has been left in run-on form. It is assumed that the author might have regretted not beginning a new paragraph, etc: but he or she did not see this problem until afterwards, until rereading.
  • The authorial manuscript presents a factual error.

In many cases, the evidence would make it almost impossible to decide what the authorial intention was at any given point. However, an intentionalist would attempt to approach authorial intention, even though it might be clear that the real intention of the author is irrecoverable.

See also

Further reading

  • Hix, H. L. Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
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