Sayin’ Ain’t Doin’
Intent, Action, and Consequence
Are you feeling a bit lost these days? Angry? Confused? Take a look at the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It will clear your head and guide you out of the fog.
If you are familiar with my writing, you know that I am a firm believer in the founding documents of our Republic as they were written. If we are to stick to the spirit of the documents, we must adhere to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. To do otherwise is to undermine the inalienable rights bestowed by God upon each citizen.
When I was in grad school, all students in the program were required to take a class in literary criticism. By midterm, I was so sick of reading about Reader-Response Criticism (the professor was in love with it), that I quit reading the assigned material. Having been interested in philosophy since I was a kid and taking a good number of upper-level philosophy courses as an undergraduate, it seemed that literary theory attracted those who would have been eaten alive in a philosophy course. It was that weak.
I attended the three-hour class once per week and participated in the discussions without having a clue about what I was talking about. I wrote the final project, a twenty-page research paper, by cherry-picking points, at random and out of context, from the required texts. The professor, known to be a hard-ass grader, gave me a B for the course. That proved it. Literary theory was a sham, a bunch of meaningless blather by useful idiots who liked to hear themselves speak.
I was wrong. Reader-response criticism, planted into the gullible minds of graduate students who are convinced of their own genius (me included at the time), is a recipe for disaster. In brief, the theory claims that all readers bring their own experiences and baggage to the text and so shape the meaning of that text.
Using Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” as a jumping-off point, where all authorial intent is snuffed out, reader-response critics consider readers’ reactions to literature as key to interpreting the meaning of the text. This opens the door to Feminist, Marxist, Freudian, Queer and You Name It interpretations. In other words, it makes reading a novel either a purely subjective experience or a preconceived group exercise such as a Marxist interpretation. The text can mean anything YOU (or the group) want it to. The author’s intent be damned.
You see where I’m headed. Relativism is the norm in most university humanities courses these days, especially in Ivy League schools that produce the “leaders” of society. They don’t call it relativism. Instead, they might go with Stanley Fish’s “interpretative communities” to figure out the “meaning” of a given text (or anything else). Stanley Fish was the guy who caused me to quit reading the texts in the lit-crit class. He was one of the big boys in reader-response criticism.
No matter what they call it, this kind of relativistic or subjective philosophy inevitably leads to groupthink. Individuals don’t exist in vacuums. They get together and they talk and they write. If nobody listens to what you say or reads what you write, you are a non-entity. Your interpretation is meaningless because you are without a group to validate it. You have been canceled.
If you’ve ever been to an academic department meeting, you know what I mean. Humanities departments housing literature, composition, philosophy, and often history departments are overwhelmingly populated by progressive faculty members. If you are more conservative, you are treated politely and ignored. The vote is predetermined. Your vote will not count. You may as well be talking to the concrete walls in a solitary confinement cell.
This runs pointedly against the intentions of the Founding Fathers. For them, the government exists to protect the inalienable rights of the individual from, well, the government and any other group who would strip the individual of these rights. They envisioned a nation populated by individuals who together created culture. Today, we are in danger of being dominated by a bureaucracy seeking conformity rather than the natural diversity found in a collection of unique individuals.
Authorial intent does matter. To eliminate the author from a work of literature is to strip it of its individuality. Moby Dick becomes just another book for the reader (or group) to interpret and has no inherent value of its own. Either the isolated individual or Stanley Fish’s “interpretative community” takes the place of the author. This is messed up. What will they want next, to take the authorship of creation away from God? Damn right. Many think they already have. But sayin’ ain’t doin’. Authorial intent does matter. Nobody and no group can take it away.