Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Unknowable Brain

Stanley Fish, former head of the English department at Duke University and a university professor of law at Florida International University, claims "If interpreting the Constitution - as opposed to rewriting it - is what you want to do, you are necessarily an 'intentionalist,' someone who is trying to figure out what the framers had in mind." He implies that interpretation only makes sense if you are interpreting the words of some PERSON:

"Suppose you're looking at a rock formation and see in it what seems to be the word 'help.' You look more closely and decide that, no, what you are seeing is an effect of erosion, random marks that just happen to resemble an English word. The moment you decide that nature caused the effect, you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it's a word, a bearer of meaning."

I disagree with Fish: one CAN'T discover a writer's intention, which at most one person knows (or knew): the writer himself. And even he might have been unaware of his intention. Not all writers work consciously.

One can't peer into another's mind. The best one can do is to ask someone his intention (if this is possible, i.e. if he is still alive) and then pretend the answer one receives is the truth. But it may not be. It may be a lie, or it may be a plausible explanation that has nothing to do with what the actual intention was, when writing. (If someone asks me why I decided to write this blog post, I will probably come up with something smart-sounding to say, because I don't want to look dumb. But it may not relate to the REAL reason why I chose to write it, which I might not even know.)

One can try to mine intention from historical context (i.e. by "Separation of Church and State," the founding fathers were not talking about total atheism, because back then no one thought in those terms), but that is equally dangerous. It's a game and we can all agree to play by its rules, but it has nothing to do with real intentions.

I even take issue with Fish's example of "help" written on a rock. He claims that if we found out it "written" by an accident of nature, we would lose interest in it. No. HE would lose interest in it. I wouldn't. I claim it would still be the world "help" just as much as it would have been had it been carved into the rock by a human.

Texts have meaning irregardless of who wrote them. If they didn't, then the works of Shakespeare and Homer would be meaningless, since we know next to nothing about those authors. And if I discovered tomorrow that "Huckleberry Finn" had actually been composed by a monkey randomly pounding keys on a typewriter, I wouldn't be any less effected by the novel. It would still make me laugh and cry.

One can be interested in biographies of authors. One can care about Mark Twain and about the person -- if there was one -- who wrote "help" on the rock. But that is a different from caring about the text itself. People confuse the two all the time, because many people care about both -- the text and the author. It's fine and natural to care about both. But they are two different things.

If you want, you can let your knowledge about the author affect your interpretation of his work (i.e. Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet -- Hmm … pretty close to "Hamlet!"), but that is your choice, and it is a somewhat arbitrary choice. One CAN compare a work to its author's life. One can also compare one author's work to another author's work. Or one can compare a work to a peach. One should do whatever one likes, as-long-as one doesn't demand that everyone else does it.

The author doesn't matter -- unless you happen to be interested in biography. If I buy a book that is missing its cover, I can enjoy the story without knowing who wrote it. Yes, finding out that the author was actually a Nazi might color my ideas about the book, but so could anything. The author might casually mention the town I grew up in, and THAT will color my reading of the book. My mind will make the associations that it will.

Let's say someone says to me, "What happens to Uncle Vanya after the play ends?" If I'm the actor playing the part (or the director of the play), I can answer, "Oh, he goes out in the yard and shoots himself," but does that make it true? Do I have the magic ability to insert an interpretation into the universe? And what if we discover a long-lost interview with Chekhov in which he says, "After the story ends, Vanya moves to the south of France and opens a hotel." Is he right? (If I disagree, am I wrong?) Why is he right? Because he is the author? Okay, but what does it MEAN that he's right? In what sense does Vanya move to France. Vanya is a fictional character, and no where in the work of fiction in which he exists does he move to France. So is the story the original play PLUS anything the author says about it? Or is the story just the original play? There's no answer. The story is whatever I (an individual reader) want it to be. It might be something different to you. All we can agree on is what is printed on the page.

As far as I'm concerned, "The Godfather" is a story told in two films: "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II." There's a Part III, but I don't acknowledge it. The filmmaker does. I say that neither of us is right. Or we are both right. We are right because there IS one interpretation that DOES matter: that of the reader (or viewer). It matters to the reader. It matters to the reader, because he IS privy to HIS interpretation. I can tell you what "The Godfather" means to me and Coppola can tell you what it means to him -- but he can't tell you what it means to me, even though he wrote it. By publishing it, he is allowing me to form my own relationship with it.

A book is like a child who grows up and gets married. When I married my wife, I formed a relationship with her which had nothing to do with her parents -- even though they created her. Parents hate this truth. So do authors. But it IS the truth.

And it all comes down to why we read. Perhaps some people read to form an imaginary relationship between themselves and the author. They imagine that the author is talking directly to them. And they try to figure out what the author MEANS -- just as I might try to figure out what you mean in a conversation with you. This is fine if reading this way gives them pleasure. (Although it is a sort of game. They can play it, but they can't make the game real. They can NEVER peer into the author's mind.)

This is NOT why I read. I read to think and feel -- mostly to feel. I look at the words on the page and let them form ideas and emotions in my brain and heart. This is why I read and it's the only reason why I read. If the words come from a human or a monkey or a freak accident of nature … I don't care. I just care about the effect they have on me.

Of course, Fish is not talking about fiction. He's talking about interpreting a legal document. But the same rule applies. It's pointless to try to figure out the founders' intentions. They are unknowable. To seek unknowable information is foolish and a waste of time. And even if we waved a magic wand and found those intentions, are we sure we would like what we would find? Maybe the INTENTION behind "Separation of Church and State" -- the reason one of the founders actually wrote that line -- was because he got pressured by his wife to d so. Maybe she said she'd quit sleeping with him if he didn't write it. Unlikely perhaps, but possible. And if it's true, what then? Do we cross out that part of the document, or do we decide that it's worth keeping, even if the original intention was silly or self-serving?

But if we don't search for the Founding Fathers' Intentions, doesn't that leave the interpretation totally up to us? And if it's up to us -- to each one of us -- then each one of us could come up with a totally different interpretation. Maybe so. I don't claim to have a solution to the problem of how we should interpret a legal document. But just because I don't have a solution, that doesn't mean we should search for the Founders' intentions. We shouldn't search for their intentions because it's impossible to find them. We waste our time trying to achieve the impossible.

And I don't think we really CAN try for impossible things if we KNOW -- I
mean deeply know -- that they are impossible. I can't try to make 2 + 2 = 5. I just can't. I know it's impossible, so my mind won't go there. When we get caught up in "impossible dreams," when we say, "it may be impossible, but dang it all, I'm going to give it my best effort anyway," do we REALLY think the task at hand is impossible? Many people DO believe (erroneously) that we can know intentions. So maybe they CAN strive for such knowledge. But I know it's impossible, so I can't strive for it.

What I can agree to do is play a game: I can say that evidence from written texts (and other evidence from history) is called "intention." And I can search for and study that evidence. If we all agree that such evidence equals intention then we can play the game together, perhaps to great utility. But that doesn't change the fact that I know of another type of intention -- the type I feel in my own head. And I know that no one has access to it except me.

I can say, "In his private diary, Jefferson reveals his intentions…", but this is a kind of conversational shorthand. In reality, I mean, in a document that probably is Jefferson's diary, the writer -- probably Jefferson -- makes a claim about his intentions." When we admit that this claim gives us ZERO insight into the actual Jefferson's unknowable intentions, why continue to talk this way? Say, I read the Constitution and was swayed by it. And then I read another document, and I was further swayed by THAT.


Listless Lawyer said...

I don't have the time (at the moment) to read your entire entry, but I will note that until just recently (when he retired), Fish was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois.

k said...

try to actually read and comprehend fish before commenting on fish