Once a book is published, who gets to interpret it? Us or the author?
- Intentionalism is the view that authors have a special authority over their work and can determine what is or is not the "proper" meaning to be found.
- Anti-intentionalism is the view that "there is nothing outside the text," and that while the author might be important, they are no more authoritative than the reader in determining meaning.
- The joy and wonder of reading is how we all find our own meanings in literature. We find answers and truths that no one else can define for us.
In 2007, J.K. Rowling rather shocked the world when she announced that one of the biggest characters in her Harry Potter books, Albus Dumbledore, was gay. Up to that point, there was nothing in the text that explicitly mentioned his sexuality one way or another. There were barely any hints at all. But, her wording was interesting in itself. She said, "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." She didn't say he definitely was. She didn't say that's the only way to see things. She said it was just how she saw him.
This raises one big issue in the philosophy of literature and in literary interpretation generally: to what extent can an author determine what their work means, especially after it's published? Do they have a special authority on how and how not to interpret a work?
Broadly speaking, the debate falls down into two camps: intentionalism and anti-intentionalism.
Intentionalism: What the author says, goes
Intentionalism is the idea that by creating the work of literature, the author has a special say over how to interpret that work. The strongest form of this is that the author has the only say. One is reminded of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass as he says, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." This applies especially to poetry, allegory, and metaphor. When a poet uses the word "moon," who determines what this might stand for?
If intentionalism were true, it would somewhat destroy the entire discipline of literary criticism.
In practice, few philosophers or critics hold this strong view. It's ridiculous to assume an author can say "dog" actually means "pineapple" and for that to be true. What's a more compelling case is a form of weak intentionalism that says an author has a privileged interpretation of their work. For instance, if there are two compelling interpretations of a work, the author has the final say. If some people see Narnia as a Christian allegory and others see it as a Marxist one, then C.S. Lewis saying it's about Christ would resolve the issue. So, if Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, then so long as that's a reasonable interpretation, that's the final word on the matter.
The intentionalist view seems plausible, if we consider how knowing an author's plan changes our reading of the book. If we know that Fydor Dostoyevsky intended Prince Myshkin in The Idiot to be a near perfect moral exemplar "with an absolutely beautiful nature," this colors how we see the book. Knowing that George Orwell intended the characters of Animal Farm to be stand-ins for figures of the Russian Revolution sets you up to read the book in a certain way.
What's more, readers seem to love asking authors questions like, "What did you mean when such-and-such did this?" or, "What were your intentions in this scene?" Clearly the author's intentions do matter more than we think, at least to some people.
Anti-intentionalism: The author has no special authority
On the other side of the debate is the idea that once a work of literature is "out there," the author has no special jurisdiction or power over how the reader should interpret it. As Philip Pullman wrote, "The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers' own minds as they read them."
This "anti-intentionalism" is represented best by a seminal text, "The Intentional Fallacy," by William Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe Beardsley. In it, they provide various counter-examples that aim to show how what the author thought or intended cannot affect how we read their work.
For instance, the 18th century poet Mark Akenside used the word "plastic" to mean a very particular thing (which was "to be capable of change"). Today, of course, that word has come to be much more commonly associated with something else entirely. The word has moved on from Akenside's day, and so we can say his poem means something new. Likewise, in Kublai Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, many of the passages are references to other poems. Many readers might not know this but still are perfectly capable of finding meaning in the poem.
In both cases, the anti-intentionalist view can be summarized by the philosopher Jacques Derrida's line, "There is nothing outside the text." Or, put another way, the author loses control over their work once we read it.
Intentionalism would destroy literary criticism
The biggest issue, perhaps, is that if intentionalism were true, it would somewhat destroy the entire discipline of literary criticism.
For example, John Milton's Paradise Lost explicitly opens with the words that his poem is about "justifying the ways of God to men." Yet, Percy Shelley and William Blake reinterpreted the entire thing as actually having Satan as the hero! If the author were dictator of their work, this kind of reimagining would never be possible. If an author claiming, "This is what the book means," were the final say, it would disallow any kind of fresh perspective or exciting re-readings. There would be no psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet or feminist perspectives on Tennessee Williams.
But most of all, if the author's intentions were all that mattered, no one would be able to find their own interpretations of a work. The beauty of literature is how we all project ourselves into what we're reading. We find answers and truths in there that are specific to us. In a way, the book becomes part of you, the reader.
So, Dumbledore can be gay but not because J.K. Rowling thinks so. It's only true if you see it, too.
Dancing, fot Nietzsche, was another way of saying Yes! to life.
He introduced idiosyncratic concepts such as the free spirit, the Übermensch, eternal recurrence, ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the revaluation of values, and the affirmation of life. He shifted allegiances: writing books, for example, in support of the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but later delivering blistering critiques of both. Not surprisingly, scholars range widely in their interpretations of Nietzsche: was he a poet or a philosopher? A nihilist, moral relativist, or Nazi sympathiser? A critic or a system builder? Anti-Christian or Christian? Answers frequently depend on which portions of Nietzsche's work a reader deems most important.
In the face of this complexity, Nietzsche offers an interpretive key: his references to dance (Tanz). Taken together, these references light a path that begins in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and wends through every major work into his final book, the posthumous Ecce Homo (1908). These references not only link his ideas and styles, they also shed light on Nietzsche's enduring motivation: to teach readers how to affirm life here and now on Earth as human bodily selves. Nietzsche's dance references call attention to the sensory education that he insists is necessary for creating values that 'remain faithful to the Earth'.
When Nietzsche wrote his first book, he was unaware of the significance that dance would have for his philosophy, in part because he was deeply enamoured with Wagner. The musician had begun composing a cycle of four operas – his now-famous Ring – intending to revive the tradition of Ancient Greek tragedies. In so doing, Wagner hoped to realise the power of music that Schopenhauer described: to save humans from the cravings and suffering of Will.
During visits paid by Nietzsche, Wagner and his wife Cosima encouraged the younger man to write a scholarly book to justify these claims. Yet, as Nietzsche later admits, in his rush to laud Wagner (and Schopenhauer), he shortchanged one of his own insights – namely, that, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, the dancing of the chorus was essential for ensuring that stories of madness, suffering and death nonetheless produce in spectators a rousing affirmation of life.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche analyses this paradoxical experience. He explains that the dancing and singing of the chorus move spectators to identify viscerally with what the chorus represents: elemental rhythms of an endlessly creative Nature. As they are moved by these rhythms, spectators feel joy. They know their bodily selves as members of an endlessly generative whole. And from this sensory vantage point, they are not devastated by the tragic death of their hero, god or ideal; instead, they perceive this death as a mere moment in an ongoing flow of appearances. Nietzsche calls the effect a 'magic transformation': spectators' sensations of suffering and terror yield to feelings of 'metaphysical comfort' and the notion that 'life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable'.
Later, in Human, All Too Human (1878), Nietzsche elaborates that all human symbolism – even music – is rooted in the 'imitation of gesture' at work in ancient tragedy. He writes that the human impulse to move with others 'is older than language, and goes on involuntarily … [even] when the language of gesture is universally suppressed,' as he observed among Christians of his day. When humans don't learn how to move their bodily selves, Nietzsche insists, their senses grow dull and they lose the capacity to discern what is good for them. He asks: where are the 'Books that teach us to dance'? Here, dance assumes a role it will play throughout Nietzsche's writing as a litmus test for any value, idea, practice or person. Does it dance? Does it catalyse a joyful affirmation of life?
On the heels of Human, Nietzsche's poor health forced him to retire from teaching, and he began to conceive plans for writing his own tragedy – a book designed to awaken in his readers a sensory vantage point from which they might experience the death of a god – in this case, the Christian God – as good for them, and a reason to love life. A book that would teach us to dance.
Nietzsche began writing his tragedy only after breaking off relations with his friends, the psychologist Paul Rée and Lou Andreas-Salomé, the woman they both loved. Nietzsche believed that he had found in Andreas-Salomé the one person who understood his quest for a radical affirmation of life. He made plans with her and Rée to live together in an intellectual society that she called their 'Unholy Trinity'. However, due primarily to suspicions planted by Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, the trio's plans did not materialise. A despondent Nietzsche wrote to his dear friend Franz Overbeck: 'Unless I can discover the alchemical trick of turning this – muck into gold, I am lost.'
Nietzsche's own 'magic transformation' appeared a month later: Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Three more parts soon followed. In this story, Zarathustra is a man who has lived alone on a mountaintop for 10 years, and comes down to teach people how to love themselves and their humanity. All four parts are saturated with references to dance, dancers and dancing. Zarathustra is a dancer, and dance is what he admonishes others to do. As Zarathustra exhorts: 'You higher men, the worst about you is that you have not learned to dance as one must dance – dancing away over yourselves! What does it matter that you are failures? How much is still possible!' And when Zarathustra states: 'I would only believe in a god that knows how to dance,' he confirms that even our highest ideals must encourage us to affirm bodily life.
After Zarathustra, Nietzsche continued to evoke dance as a touchstone for life-affirming values. In his critique of western European Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), dance appears as an activity practised by the strong to preserve their ability to digest their experiences; those who dance are not burdened by ressentiment, or need for revenge. They have the sensory discernment needed to resist pernicious applications of the ascetic ideal. In Twilight of the Idols (1889) and The Antichrist (1895), dance appears as a discipline for training sensory awareness and cultivating skills of perception and responsibility, so that one is able to participate responsibly in the creation of values, conscious of what one's movements are making.
Nietzsche's ubiquitous references to dance are ever-present reminders that the work of overcoming oneself – of freeing oneself enough from anger, bitterness and despair to say 'Yes!' to life – is not just an intellectual or scientific task. An ability to affirm life demands bodily practices that discipline our minds to elemental rhythms, to the creativity of our senses, and to the 'great reason', our body, 'that does not say “I" but does 'I".' Only when we engage in such practices will we have the sensory awareness we need in order to discern whether the values we create and the movements we make express love for ourselves and the Earth.
Scans show similar activity to what occurs when you think about yourself.
It's really remarkable how seriously we take the fortunes of fictional characters. We care what happens to the people that we know perfectly well are simply words on a page or a screen. That they exist only in a writer's—and then in our—imagination somehow makes little difference. The best fictional characters stay with us, and we miss them when their stories end. We're weird.
Scientists from Ohio State University have published a study that describes just what is going on in people's heads when they invest in fictional characters. According to lead author of the study Timothy Broom, "When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves." It would seem what's going on is that we identify with these characters to the extent that we—at least somewhat—become them.
This kind of identification can impact our real lives, too. As the study notes, there are undoubtedly more educators in the world because of Robin Williams' Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society," more doctors thanks to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," and more than a few attorneys who got the idea for their careers from Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Conducting research in Westeros
The researchers used characters from HBO's "Game of Thrones": Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte. They chose the series due to its massive popularity and because the personalities of its characters were diverse enough that participants in the study would be more likely to find one they identified with.
The study took place over the course of GoT's seventh season. There were 19 participants in the study, all fans of the show, ranging in age from 18-37 years with a median age of 24. Ten were female, nine male, and all were right-handed and deemed to be good fMRI candidates — an fMRI shows changes in blood flow that indicate activity.
This is your brain on fiction
Credit: Judeus Samson/Unsplash
The study had two phases.
First, participants responded to questions asked in two well-regarded questionnaires: the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI) and the Transportability Scale. They were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel."
Next, each participant's brain was scanned in a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) device as they were shown a series of names: their own, any of nine pre-selected personal friends, or a Thrones character. Beneath each name was a descriptor such as "smart," "trustworthy," "lonely," or "sad," and the individual was asked to state whether the attribute was applicable by saying "yes" or "no."
The researchers were most interested in activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). It's known from previous research that when we think of ourselves, activity in the vMPFC increases.
As the researchers predicted, those with lower scores on the IRI and Transportability Scale had the greatest activity in the vMPFC when they thought about themselves, somewhat less when they thought about their friends, and the least activity of all when they thought about the characters.
On the other hand, people with higher tests scores—those who had reported that they often identified with fictional characters—were seen as having higher levels of activity in the vMPFC than other participants when they were considering the characters, especially when they were thinking about characters they liked or related to.
Co-author of the study Dylan Wanger suggests that our identification with fictional characters may be a kind of pleasurable role-playing: "For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others' eyes and return from those experiences changed."
"What previous studies have found," Wanger says, "is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes intwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains."
The key? A computational flattening algorithm.
An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.
The team, including MIT Libraries and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers and an MIT student and alumna, published their findings today in a Nature Communications article titled, "Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography."
The senders of these letters had closed them using "letterlocking," the historical process of folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson Conservator at MIT Libraries, developed letterlocking as a field of study with Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London, and the Unlocking History research team. Since the papers' folds, tucks, and slits are themselves valuable evidence for historians and conservators, being able to examine the letters' contents without irrevocably damaging them is a major advancement in the study of historic documents.
"Letterlocking was an everyday activity for centuries, across cultures, borders, and social classes," explains Dambrogio. "It plays an integral role in the history of secrecy systems as the missing link between physical communications security techniques from the ancient world and modern digital cryptography. This research takes us right into the heart of a locked letter."
This breakthrough technique was the result of an international and interdisciplinary collaboration between conservators, historians, engineers, imaging experts, and other scholars. "The power of collaboration is that we can combine our different interests and tools to solve bigger problems," says Martin Demaine, artist-in-residence in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the research team.
The algorithm that makes the virtual unfolding possible was developed by Amanda Ghassaei SM '17 and Holly Jackson, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a participant in MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), both working at the Center for Bits and Atoms. The virtual unfolding code is openly available on GitHub.
"When we got back the first scans of the letter packets, we were instantly hooked," says Ghassaei. "Sealed letters are very intriguing objects, and these examples are particularly interesting because of the special attention paid to securing them shut."
"We're X-raying history," says team member David Mills, X-ray microtomography facilities manager at Queen Mary University of London. Mills, together with Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary, used machines specially designed for use in dentistry to scan unopened "locked" letters from the 17th century. This resulted in high-resolution volumetric scans, produced by high-contrast time delay integration X-ray microtomography.
"Who would have thought that a scanner designed to look at teeth would take us so far?" says Davis.
Computational flattening algorithms were then applied to the scans of the letters. This has been done successfully before with scrolls, books, and documents with one or two folds. The intricate folding configurations of the "locked" letters, however, posed unique technical challenges.
"The algorithm ends up doing an impressive job at separating the layers of paper, despite their extreme thinness and tiny gaps between them, sometimes less than the resolution of the scan," says Erik Demaine, professor of computer science at MIT and an expert in computational origami. "We weren't sure it would be possible."
The team's approach utilizes a fully 3D geometric analysis that requires no prior information about the number or types of folds or letters in a letter packet. The virtual unfolding generates 2D and 3D reconstructions of the letters in both folded and flat states, plus images of the letters' writing surfaces and crease patterns.
"One of coolest technical contributions of the work is a technique that explores the folded and flattened representations of a letter simultaneously," says Holly Jackson. "Our new technology enables conservators to preserve a letter's internal engineering, while still giving historians insight into the lives of the senders and recipients."
This virtual unfolding technique was used to reveal the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. The letter comes from the Brienne Collection, a European postmaster's trunk preserving 300-year-old undelivered mail, which has provided a rare opportunity for researchers to study sealed locked letters.
"The trunk is a unique time capsule," says David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history, Radboud University Nijmegen. "It preserves precious insights into the lives of thousands of people from all levels of society, including itinerant musicians, diplomats, and religious refugees. As historians, we regularly explore the lives of people who lived in the past, but to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day — and never even reached its recipient — is truly extraordinary."
Advancing a new field
In the Nature Communications article, the team also unveils the first systematization of letterlocking techniques. After studying 250,000 historical letters, they devised a chart of categories and formats that assigns letter examples a security score. Understanding these security techniques of historical correspondence means archival collections can be conserved in ways that protect small but important material details, such as slits, locks, and creases.
"Sometimes the past resists scrutiny," explains Daniel Starza Smith. "We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We've learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened."
The research team hopes to make a study collection of letterlocking examples available to scholars and students from a range of disciplines. The virtual unfolding algorithm could also have broad applications: Because it can handle flat, curved, and sharply folded materials, it can be used on many types of historical texts, including letters, scrolls, and books.
"What we have achieved is more than simply opening the unopenable, and reading the unreadable," says Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University. "We have shown how truly interdisciplinary work breaks down boundaries to investigate what neither humanities nor the sciences can hope to understand alone."
Computational tools promise to accelerate research on letterlocking as well as reveal new historical evidence. Thanks to this research, adds Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University, "we can now imagine new affective histories that physically connect the past and the present, the human and the nonhuman, the tangible and the digital."
The research team includes Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator, MIT Libraries; Amanda Ghassaei, research engineer at Adobe Research; Daniel Starza Smith, lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London; Holly Jackson, undergraduate student at MIT; Erik Demaine, professor in EECS; Martin Demaine, robotics engineer in CSAIL and Angelika and Barton Weller Artist-in-Residence in EECS; Graham Davis and David Mills, Queen Mary University of London's Institute of Dentistry; Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University; Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University; and David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history at Radboud University Nijmegen.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Seaver Foundation, the Delmas Foundation, the British Academy, and the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek.
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"