Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Why the Author Didn’t Die

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2015

Somewhat pedictably, I once had a younger brother who went to his grandfather and said, “We aren’t having a surprise party tonight.” He, of course, was flabbergasted when we shouted at him for it.

Not quite as predictably, the auteur theory of film criticism has had its detractors almost since its inception. Really, no one sensible actually subscribes to it now. After all, no one actually believes that Scorsese is a Catholic filmmaker or that Bergman was engaged with his faith or that Richard Linklater likes hearing people talk.

I’m not much of a subscriber to the term “auteur,” but Carruth earns it as writer-producer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-star. He reveals images that can be coldly clinical or a sun-dappled gold, put together in cleanly severed, occasionally overlapping bits to an insidiously affecting soundtrack.
Melissa Starker

Okay, let’s stop. There’s obviously something going on here. Critics don’t want to be auteurists, but they seem overwhelmingly to default into that mode of speaking. Really, pretty much every review out there talks about the movie in terms of what the director wants to do, or what the director likes to do, or something else about the director.

The questions here, obviously, are why they don’t want to be auteurist, and why they talk as if they are anyway.

One reason for the first is, no doubt, something that happened among literary critics eighty or so years ago: new criticism. It was a movement that started by analysing poems as ‘self-contained objects;’ among its many facets was a rejection of the poet’s explanation of the poem as gospel. Or, as a friend put it when I told him about this essay, “do you really want to go around shipping paintings with explaining artists attached?” But, while I’ve seen arguments won and lost by someone invoking ‘the intentional fallacy,’ I’m yet to see a literature reviewer (in venues that can be called reasonably mainstream for an interested outsider, a spectrum from which I’m picking all my film reviewer quotes as well) start a sentence with “I’m no auteurist but…” In fact, most happily talk about the author’s vision. So, I have trouble ascribing it as the most important reason for the existence of such sentiments among reviewers of film.

The main reason, I believe, is implied in that above quote: movies involve a lot pf people; to say that it all comes from the director’s head is… a bit naive. Giving it to Jim Emerson,

Any movie is a highly evolved and complex synthetic organism, the result of weeks or years of labor, and the product of chance and circumstance as well as artistic vision. By the time it reaches its final form in the marketplace (only to be superseded by the further revised DVD version a few months later), it has been through countless evolutionary phases, the result of thousands upon thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions by hundreds upon hundreds of people. In some cases, there’s an Intelligent Designer at work (usually the director, but sometimes the producer or the writer or an actor or studio executives, and generally a combination of them all), but even the greatest filmmakers are hardly omniscient or infallible.

Now, neither do I want to dip my toe into a decades-old debate among professional philosophers, nor do I want to talk about correct ways to split the blame; what I do want to do is ask why people speak like films spring from the intentions of auteurs when their stated beliefs don’t really allow it – why the hell they enjoy committing two intellectual sins in the way they go about their jobs.

And not always at the same time. Simon Abrams in his review of the latest X-Men film (I just opened the review at the top of the rogerebert.com site) performing one and then the other (emphasis mine):

Singer’s assured grip on his characters is what makes his X-Men movies the best of the bunch. He’s exceptionally good at pacing and realizing set pieces like Magneto’s prison break or the first fight between the Sentinels and the future X-Men. The film also takes time out to wink at viewers, as when Wolverine, now without a metal skeleton, lets out a confused sigh of relief as he quietly passes through a metal detector.

For the answer, let’s talk about this card game I play a lot called ‘Literature.’ It’s a game where the deck is split into sets, and each team tries to collect as many sets as possible, by asking specific members of the opposing team for specific cards; the most important rules are, you can’t ask for a card unless you have a card of the same set in your hand and you can’t lie about whether you have a card you’ve been asked for. So, the only completely certain piece of information you’re giving the opposite team is, I have a card in this set and this teammate of yours does or doesn’t. But, the people in my card-playing group often score whole sets after hearing two or three cards being asked from the other team (the sets are of six or seven cards each). How?

In the 1946 article ‘The Intentional Fallacy,’ Aubrey Beardsley and William K Wimsatt make an argument that is (very) roughly this: hearing a sentence doesn’t give you definitive proof of the utterer’s intention, because there exist misunderstandings and randomly and arbitrarily generated sentences and ambiguous sentences, and so it’s a mistake to think that the most fundamental property of a piece of writing or an utterance is the intention of its author. While many specifics of the argument and the exact proposition being argued changed over time, Beardsley mostly stuck to something like this skeleton throughout his life.*

The analogy is obvious. Hearing a person ask for a card doesn’t give you definitive proof about anything except that they have a card in that set and whether the askee has it, and so it’s a mistake to ascribe to the opponent particular reasons for having asked that particular card – and it’s even stupider to make inferences from the ascribing of the reason. But, as I’ve said, we do perform such mistaken reasoning and we bet on it being correct, and (even if I say so myself) we don’t come out of it looking like complete idiots.

Hell, if Beardsley and Wimsatt’s article were taken too seriously, it would have been a mistake for us to have shouted at my little cousin, even if he’d told our grandfather that there was a surprise party.

It’s fairly trivial for most of us not to extend the argument all the way to the third case. And, at least for me personally, it was somewhat harder to stop it before the second; I spent years worrying that any statement that was even slightly suspect was reverse psychology but then it could also be reverse reverse psychology and but then why not add any arbitrary numbers of reverses to it and… HOW DO I STOP MY CLASSMATES FROM PLAYING PRANKS ON ME? It is a lot harder, I think, to explicitly prohibit it from the first case – especially since it does apply there.

I mean, obviously right? Well, the generally insightfful Film Crit Hulk has a few choice words for you:

YOU MAY NOTE THAT WHAT ALL THESE ABOVE ASSUMPTIONS SEEM TO LACK IS THE CRUCIAL UNDERSTANDING THAT A WRITER / DIRECTOR IS MAKING ALL THESE THINGS HAPPEN ON SCREEN. YES, THE WORLDS OF FICTION VERY MUCH HAVE GODS ORCHESTRATING EVERY LITTLE BIT OF DETAIL. WHICH MEANS THAT THERE ARE VERY CLEAR INTENTS TO ANY AUTHORIAL NARRATIVE, FOR THEY ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO CONVEY TO YOU SOME KIND OF MEANING ABOUT HUMAN BEHAVIOR, MEANING, AND IMPORT. THIS ISN’T SOME HIGH-MINDED TAKE ON IT EITHER. THAT’S WHAT ART IS. IT DIRECTLY CONTRIBUTES TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE UNIVERSE. AND WHETHER THE ART IS MEANT TO POIGNANT, ENTERTAINING, ESOTERIC, OR OUTRIGHT INDULGENT, THERE ARE STILL VERY CLEAR STATEMENTS BEING MADE ABOUT “HOW LIFE WORKS,” WHETHER THE AUTHOR MEANS THEM OR NOT. AND THUS, IT’S THE AUTHOR’S RESPONSIBILITY TO CONTEXTUALIZE THAT MEANING. AND NO, THAT DOESN’T MEAN AN AUTHOR HAS TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. AND YES, THAT MEANS THE AUTHOR HAS THE RIGHT TO DO IT BADLY. AND NO, THAT DOESN’T MEAN PEOPLE CAN’T TOTALLY MISINTERPRET THAT ART (WITH THE MOST FREQUENT BEING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DEPICTION AND ENDORSEMENT). THAT MAY SOUND LIKE A LOT OF LEVELS, BUT WE UNDERSTAND THIS PRETTY CLEARLY. IT’S HOW AND WHY WE’VE BEEN TELLING STORIES SINCE THAT AESOP GUY GOT HIS FABLE ON.

Okay, let’s stop again, and contemplate what happens if we outlaw the idea of intention when talking about art. The first thing that happens is that thematic analysis becomes boring; while we can say ‘this movie dealt with these themes,’ we cannot say ‘this movie took this stand on that problem.’ The second thing that happens is, we either lose all concept of quality or end up in an unreasonably narrow one, depending on what you replace aesthetic unity with.

Now, modus ponens or modus tollens? I could go on about this for a thousand or so words and still not reach a definite conclusion. Roughly I’d say I prefer modus tollens, because a lot more things make a lot more sense that way. But there’s no reason to get into that, because I have a much more convincing argument that clarifies the issue and what I believe is one word being used for two different but related things.

See, why did my grandfather figure out there was a party? In short, to some approximation, he asked himself why his grandson would even bother telling him there was no party if there was in fact none.

Similarly, how do we figure out things in literature the card game? We ask ourselves why the asker is asking for that particular card. Some answers just make a lot more sense and explain more facts about the asker’s behaviour, and so we take them to be the ‘correct’ answers.

And if my cousin or the card-asker told me that his intention was something else, I wouldn’t care (unless they suppplemented with some extra information previously unknown). My answer is still better, because it explains more things (unless the extra information shifts the balance). As you can see, I hope, there are two things here hiding under the word ‘intention.’ There’s the intention, and there’s the answer to the question “why this, then?”

This generalises to all interactions; when we say we’ve come to know a person, we mean that from zir behaviour we’ve abstracted out a model of why ze does things, and that model is reasonably accurate and detailed. The reason we identify the model in our heads with the person in question is that we are aiming to make the model mimic the person, and the reason we can identify them is that our models actually do output the right behaviour some reasonable fraction of the time for situations not too far from normality.

Now, the solution to the whole issue of intention should be easy to state. As a reviewer, it is interesting to me to make a model of what the piece of art wants to communicate in my head; then, I just talk about why the model is outputting such things, except I phrase it in terms like ‘the movie wants to do this and that’ because it’s less effort and I assume everyone elses accepts this phrasing. The director/writer/artist is but a convenient anchor for this model, since we are much more comfortable ascribing intention to a person than to an inanimate object.

And this also makes clear the extent to which the intentional fallacy is a fallacy: you can’t cite an author to prove that someone’s reading is wrong, unless you’re willing to either ship paintings with artists attached to make sure that inferred intention doesn’t diverge from authorial intention or decide that communication doesn’t really ever happen.

*It seems traditional to associate Beardsley rather than Wimsatt to the idea, and I’ll follow that here.
Secondly, it seems worth noting that, despite the fact that I’m going to make a whole bunch of statements, I’m not necessarily contradicting Beardsley; in fact, the only thing I definitely know about how far he intended his arguments to go is that it changed over time as various people replied to him with various degrees of convincingness.

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