General Musings: You Know What I Mean?

The intention of the author is neither available nor desirable
– Wimsatt and Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”

The birth of the reader is the death of the author
– Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

A certain kind of pre-1930s literary criticism occupied itself overly with discovering the intent of the author, permitting this as the only avenue of enquiry available to the reader. The critical question was in these works usually framed not as “What does this work convey?” or “how does it relate to us as readers?” but rather “What did Dickens mean? To say that this was a rather dry and fruitless line of enquiry is, I think, uncontroversial. This didn’t prevent the approach from hanging around well after its use-by date, however, and I think a lot of scholastic education through the 20th century remained on the hunt for the intention of the author. Both Wimsatt and Beardsley in the 1940s and Barthes in the 1960s were concerned to find alternative approaches to appreciating a text, approaches which remain useful to this day.

In a similar way – and until much more recently than in the case of literary studies – dance and dancemakers have been somewhat encumbered by the search for “intention”. Many is the time when, in the bar at the interval, I’ve overheard audience members earnestly discussing post-constructions of the choreographer’s dramatic intentions; many is the Q&A session after the performance that I’ve heard the same narrow-framed questions thudding upon the stage, the same complaints if there’s no programme note to reveal the code. “It isn’t a puzzle to be solved,” complains New Art Club’s Pete Shenton, and I quite agree – but the hunt is still on. Audiences seem to like to be told not only what’s going on, but what it all finally means.

I don’t for one moment wish to suggest that there is no meaning to be found, or that the act of interpretation cannot enrich the experience of watching a work. I simply agree with Wimsatt and Beardsley that the intention of the maker, whatever it might be, is simply not available to us; I would also argue, like them, that this unavailbility doesn’t matter. My partner introduced me to Umberto Eco’s very useful concept of the intentio operis, the “intention” found in the form and content of the work itself, and I feel that is that the experience of the viewer within the performance is the most useful place to begin our analysis of meaning – how do I respond to this phrase, this structure, and why? This is not to shut down meanings, but to explore them, open them, liberate them from the concern with authorial intention.

Barthes argues that meaning resides not with the work’s origin but with its destination, the reader. I would agree that the attempt to discover an unlocatable authorial intention can be misleading, even destructive – leaving the work itself and its relationship with the audience out of the equation closes out what are to me the two most valuable parts of the equation. I believe that the most fruitful place to seek interpretation of in the work and in the experience of the audience within the work.

The thing that responds to the work as comic, or tragic, or tear-jerkingly melodramatic, is we the audience. And once we have looked to the work to ground our interpretation, I don’t really think it matters a stuff what the creator thinks it means. So next time you ask me what that gesture in the middle of my last trio meant, don’t be surprised if I look at you funny – it’s not that there is no meaning to be found. It’s just that it’s you who needs to find it.

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