Best Intentions

L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs
—St. Bernard of Clairvaux. c. 1150 A.D.

And if anyone knows Chang-Rae Lee,” wrote Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé back in 2006, “let’s find out what he thinks about Native Speaker!” The reason Bérubé gives for doing that asking is, first, that Lee wrote the novel under discussion, Native Speaker—and second, that Bérubé “once read somewhere that meaning is identical with intention.” But this isn’t the beginning of an essay about Native Speaker. It’s actually the end of an attack on a fellow English professor: the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Walter Benn Michaels, who (along with with Steven Knapp, now president of George Washington University), wrote the 1982 essay “Against Theory”—an essay that  argued that “the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author’s intended meaning.” Bérubé’s closing scoff then is meant to demonstrate just how politically conservative Michaels’ work is— earlier in the same piece, Bérubé attempted to tie Michaels’ work to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Disuniting of America, a book that, because it argued that “multiculturalism” weakened a shared understanding of the United States, has much the same status among some of the intelligentsia that Mein Kampf has among Jews. Yet—weirdly for a critic who often insists on the necessity of understanding historical context—it’s Bérubé’s essay that demonstrates a lack of contextual knowledge, while it’s Michaels’ view—weirdly for a critic who has echoed Henry Ford’s claim that “History is bunk”—that demonstrates a possession of it. In historical reality, that is, it’s Michaels’ pro-intention view that has been the politically progressive one, while it’s Bérubé’s scornful view that shares essentially everything with traditionally conservative thought.

Perhaps that ought to have been apparent right from the start. Despite the fact that, to many English professors, the anti-intentionalist view has helped to unleash enormous political and intellectual energies on behalf of forgotten populations, the reason it could do so was that it originated from a forgotten population that, to many of those same professors, deserves to be forgotten: white Southerners. Anti-intentionalism, after all, was a key tenet of the critical movement called the New Criticism—a movement that, as Paul Lauter described in a presidential address to the American Studies Association in 1994, arose “largely in the South” through the work of Southerners like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Hence, although Bérubé, in his essay on Michaels, insinuates that intentionalism is politically retrograde (and perhaps even racist), it’s actually the contrary belief that can be more concretely tied to a conservative politics.

Ransom and the others, after all, initially became known through a 1930 book entitled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, a book whose theme was a “central attack on the impact of industrial capitalism” in favor of a vision of a specifically Southern tradition of a society based around the farm, not the factory. In their vision, as Lauter says, “the city, the artificial, the mechanical, the contingent, cosmopolitan, Jewish, liberal, and new” were counterposed to the “natural, traditional, harmonious, balanced, [and the] patriachal”: a juxtaposition of sets of values that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary Republican political ad. But as Lauter observes, although these men were “failures in … ‘practical agitation’”—i.e., although I’ll Take My Stand was meant to provoke a political revolution, it didn’t—“they were amazingly successful in establishing the hegemony of their ideas in the practice of the literature classroom.” Among the ideas that they instituted in the study of literature was the doctrine of anti-intentionalism.

The idea of anti-intentionalism itself, of course, predates the New Criticism: writers like T.S. Eliot (who grew up in St. Louis) and the University of Cambridge don F.R. Leavis are often cited as antecedents. Yet it did not become institutionalized as (nearly) official doctrine of English departments  (which themselves hardly existed) until the 1946 publication of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Sewanee Review. (The Review, incidentally, is a publication of Sewanee: The University of the South, which was, according to its Wikipedia page, originally founded in Tennessee in 1857 “to create a Southern university free of Northern influences”—i.e., abolitionism.) In “The Intentional Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley explicitly “argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”—a doctrine that, in the decades that followed, did not simply become a key tenet of the New Criticism, but also largely became accepted as the basis for work in English departments. In other words, when Bérubé attacks Michaels in the guise of acting on behalf of minorities, he also attacks him on behalf of the institution of English departments—and so just who the bully is here isn’t quite so easily made out as Bérubé makes it appear.

That’s especially true because anti-intentionalism wasn’t just born and raised among conservatives—it has also continued to be a doctrine in conservative service. Take, for instance, the teachings of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who throughout his career championed a method of interpretation he called “textualism”—by which he meant (!) that, as he said in 1995, it “is the law that governs, not the intent of the lawgiver.” Scalia argued his point throughout his career: in 1989’s Green v. Bock Laundry Mach. Co., for instance, he wrote that the

meaning of terms on the statute books ought to be determined, not on the basis of which meaning can be shown to have been understood by the Members of Congress, but rather on the basis of which meaning is … most in accord with context and ordinary usage … [and is] most compatible with the surrounding body of law.

Scalia thusly argued that interpretation ought to proceed from a consideration of language itself, apart from those who speak it—a position that would place him, perhaps paradoxically from Michael Bérubé’s position, among the most rarified heights of literary theorists: it was after all the formidable German philosopher Martin Heidegger—a twelve-year member of the Nazi Party and sometime-favorite of Bérubé’s—who wrote the phrase “Die Sprache spricht”: “Language [and, by implication, not speakers] speaks.” But, of course, that may not be news Michael Bérubé wishes to hear.

Like Odysseus’ crew, there’s a simple method by which Bérubé could avoid hearing the point: all of the above could be dismissed as an example of the “genetic fallacy.” First defined by Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel in 1934’s An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, the “genetic fallacy” is “the supposition that an actual history of any science, art, or social institution can take the place of a logical analysis of its structure.” That is, the arguments above could be said to be like the argument that would dismiss anti-smoking advocates on the grounds that the Nazis were also anti-smoking: just because the Nazi were against smoking is no reason not to be against smoking also. In the same way, just because anti-intentionalism originated among conservative Southerners—and also, as we saw, committed Nazis—is no reason to dismiss the thought of anti-intentionalism. Or so Michael Bérubé might argue.

That would be so, however, only insofar as the doctrine of anti-intentionalism were independent from the conditions from which it arose: the reasons to be against smoking, after all, have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or the situation of interwar Germany. But in fact the doctrine of anti-intentionalism—or rather, to put things in the correct order, the doctrine of intentionalism—has everything to do with the politics of its creators. In historical reality, the doctrine enunciated by Michaels—that intention is central to interpretation—was in fact created precisely in order to resist the conservative political visions of Southerners. From that point of view, in fact, it’s possible to see the Civil War itself as essentially fought over this principle: from this height, “slavery” and “states’ rights” and the rest of the ideas sometimes advanced as reasons for the war become mere details.

It was, in fact, the very basis upon which Abraham Lincoln would fight the Civil War—though to see how requires a series of steps. They are not, however, especially difficult ones: in the first place, Lincoln plainly said what the war was about in his First Inaugural Address. “Unanimity is impossible,” as he said there, while “the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissable.” Not everyone will agree all the time, in other words, yet the idea of a “wise minority” (Plato’s philosopher-king or the like) has been tried for centuries—and been found wanting; therefore, Lincoln continued, by “rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” Lincoln thereby concluded that “a majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations”—that is, bounds to protect the minority—“is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Since the Southerners, by seceding, threatened this idea of government—the only guarantee of free government—therefore Lincoln was willing to fight them. But where did Lincoln obtain this idea?

The intellectual line of descent, as it happens, is crystal clear: as Wills writes, “Lincoln drew much of his defense of the Union from the speeches of [Daniel] Webster”: after all, the Gettysburg Address’ famous phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was an echo of Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne, which contained the phrase “made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” But if Lincoln got his notions of the Union (and thusly, his reasons for fighting the war) from Webster, then it should also be noted that Webster got his ideas from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: as Theodore Parker, the Boston abolitionist minister, once remarked, “Mr. Justice Story was the Jupiter Pluvius [Raingod] from whom Mr. Webster often sought to elicit peculiar thunder for his speeches and private rain for his own public tanks of law.” And Story, for his part, got his notions from another Supreme Court justice: James Wilson, who—as Linda Przybyszewski notes in passing in her book, The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan (a later Supreme Court justice)—was “a source for Joseph Story’s constitutional nationalism.” So in this fashion Lincoln’s arguments concerning the constitution—and thus, the reasons for fighting the war—ultimately derived from Wilson.


Not this James Wilson.

Yet, what was that theory—the one that passed by a virtual apostolic succession from Wilson to Story to Webster to Lincoln? It was derived, most specifically, from a question Wilson had publicly asked in 1768, in his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. “Is British freedom,” Wilson had there asked, “denominated from the soil, or from the people, of Britain?” Nineteen years later, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Wilson would echo the same theme: “Shall three-fourths be ruled by one-fourth? … For whom do we make a constitution? Is it for men, or is it for imaginary beings called states?” To Wilson, the answer was clear: constitutions are for people, not for tracts of land, and as Wills correctly points out, it was on that doctrine that Lincoln prosecuted the war.

James Wilson (1742-1798)
This James Wilson.

Still, although all of the above might appear unobjectionable, there is one key difficulty to be overcome. If, that is, Wilson’s theory—and Lincoln’s basis for war—depends on a theory of political power derived from people, and not inanimate objects like the “soil,” that requires a means of distinguishing between the two—which perhaps is why Wilson insisted, in his Lectures on Law in 1790 (the very first such legal works in the United States), that “[t]he first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.” Or—to put it another way—the intention of those who made it. It’s intention, in other words, that enables Wilson’s theory to work—as Knapp and Michaels well-understand in “Against Theory.”

The central example of “Against Theory,” after all, is precisely about how to distinguish people from objects. “Suppose that you’re walking along a beach and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand,” Michaels and his co-author ask. These “squiggles,” it seems, appear to be the opening lines of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber”: “A slumber did my spirit seal.” That wonder, then, is reinforced by the fact that, in this example, the next wave leaves, “in its wake,” the next stanza of the poem. How to explain this event, Knapp and Michaels ask?

There are, they say, only two alternatives: either to ascribe “these marks to some agent capable of intentions,” or to “count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes,” like some (highly unlikely) process of erosion or wave action or the like. Which, in turn, leads up to the $64,000 question: if these “words” are the result of “mechanical processes” and not the actions of an actor, then “will they still seem to be words?”

The answer, of course, is that they will not: “They will merely seem to resemble words.” Thus, to deprive (what appear to be) the words “of an author is to convert them into accidental likenesses of language.” Intention and meaning are, in this way, identical to each other: no intention, no meaning—and vice versa. Similarly, I suggest, to Lincoln (and his intellectual antecedents), the state is identical to its people—and vice versa. Which, clearly, then suggests that those who deny intention are, in their own fashion—and no matter what they say—secessionists.

If so, then that would, conversely, make those who think—along with Knapp and Michaels—that it is intention that determines meaning, and—along with Lincoln and Wilson—that it is people that constitutes states, then it would follow that those who thought that way really could—unlike the sorts of “radicals” Bérubé is attempting to cover for—construct the United States differently, in a fashion closer to the vision of James Wilson as interpreted by Abraham Lincoln. There are, after all, a number of things about the government of the United States that still lend themselves to the contrary theory, that power derives from the inanimate object of the soil: the Senate, for one. The Electoral College, for another. But the “radical” theory espoused by Michael Bérubé and others of his ilk does not allow for any such practical changes in the American constitutional architecture. In fact, given its collaboration—a word carefully chosen—with conservatives like Antonin Scalia, it does rather the reverse.

Then again, perhaps that is the intention of Michael Bérubé. He is, after all, an apparently-personable man who nevertheless asked, in a 2012 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education explaining why he resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, us to consider just how horrible the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal was—for Joe Paterno’s family. (Just “imagine their shock and grief” at finding out that the great college coach may have abetted a child rapist, he asked—never mind the shock and grief of those who discovered that their child had been raped.) He is, in other words, merely a part-time apologist for child rape—and so, I suppose, on his logic we ought to give a pass to his slavery-defending, Nazi-sympathizing, “intellectual” friends.

They have, they’re happy to tell us after all, only the best intentions.


Get Lucky

All ends with beginnings
“Get Lucky”
Daft Punk
Random Access Memories (2013)

No one in their right mind would have thought the shot was any good when it departed the man’s club; no one reading the man’s card, later, would have thought it anything less than majestic. Standing at the sixth tee on Streamsong’s Red Course, displaying a form that most professionals would have described as “slouchy,” the man searched after his pellet with worried eyes as it took off at an angle best referred to as “obtuse” in a direction usually noted in connection with the phrase “last seen.” The ball had not, in short, behaved in the manner the golfer had intended—even though the evidence of the scorecard might appear to differ.

The sixth on the Red is a short par three, with a pond to the right and a large bunker—so inviting to the pond’s resident alligators—intervening between the pond and the green. There is a dune to the left that forms the base for seventh hole’s tee box slightly in front of the green, and another dune farther on, creating about a twenty-yard space between the two dunes that is hidden from the tee. The golfer’s ball had disappeared into this space, and since both of the dunes were covered with tall grass and brush, it seemed likely that we had already lost sight of that ball for the last time.

Somehow, however, as you have likely already guessed, the ball reappeared from behind the dune it had not buried itself in and sped, as if shot by an improbably goodhearted troll, towards the green’s flagstick, which it struck directly and then, guided inexorably by the laws of physics, buried itself underground like an especially amiable corpse. An “ace,” a hole-in-one: golf’s holy grail, with the kicker that it was not found (or created) by some wizened, ascetic practitioner. It was as if, instead of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, seated on his ass, had charged the windmills. And won.

It was perhaps the most spectacular instantiation of the maddening phrase amateur golfers are so fond of repeating: “better to be lucky than good”—a phrase that is all too often invoked, not merely in golf, but in wider arenas also. Such as, for instance, in the business of interpreting.

“If I say, ‘I promise to loan you five pounds,’ but as the words cross my lips have no intention of doing so, I have still promised,” writes the British literary critic Terry Eagleton. That’s because the “promising is built into the situation”—promising isn’t, Eagleton claims, “a ghostly impulse in my skull.” All that matters is whether I have said the words that make a promise, not whether I intended to promise or not—a view that is a kind of restatement of the golfer’s adage.

Think, for example, of the home run. “If a batter in a softball game hits a fair ball into the stands,” asks Walter Benn Michaels, “it is not evidence she hit a home run; it is a home run.” When it comes to home runs, the intention of the batter does not matter: as Michaels says, “[w]e do not care whether she was trying to hit a home run, or whether she even meant to swing.” Just as a promise is a promise, a home run is a home run; one reason perhaps why the foreign Marxist Eagleton could share a view of intention with a justice of the United State Supreme Court not known for his sympathies for the revolution: Antonin Scalia.

“What we are looking for when we construe a statute,” Scalia once wrote to describe his approach to interpreting the law, is not “what the legislature intended” but instead “what it said.” Scalia, like Eagleton, refuses to play the game of climbing inside another’s mind.

That’s why, in the words of one of Scalia’s readers (the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels), what Scalia claims to be interested in is not “what the authors meant by the words … but in the meaning of the words themselves.” Scalia’s claim, in other words, is that words have a meaning that is independent of the uses a writer might put them towards.

It’s an approach that, like Eagleton’s description, has the virtue of appearing to wash its hands of the messy business of discovering the inside of an author’s mind and instead focus on what might seem to be the only tangible evidence available: in this case, the words on the page. Interpreting a law ought to be as simple as recognizing an ace, Scalia wants to say. Intention shouldn’t matter.

Yet to erase intention from the act of construing meaning is, Michaels wants to say, as ridiculous as excluding water from Niagara Falls: without it, there’s nothing left. It’s a point Michaels (along with Stephen Knapp) made thirty years ago in an article entitled “Against Theory”: an article that contains its own knockdown anecdote. Instead of a sports analogy, however, Knapp and Michaels’ account is about a visit to the shore.

“Suppose that you’re walking along a beach,” this story goes, “and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand.” On further examination, you find that the squiggles greatly resemble several lines of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber.” How, Michaels and Knapp ask, would we respond to such a discovery?

If we are curious, we might want to think about what might have generated the squiggles—yet while there might be many possible candidates, all of them reduce to two categories. “You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.),” Knapp and Michaels say, “or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.).” And so the point arrives: if it is demonstrated that the squiggles are produced by some natural cause, “will they still seem to be words?”

The answer clearly is no—the squiggles “will merely seem to resemble words.” As one who agrees with Knapp and Michaels’ view, Stanley Fish, put the point in a column for the New York Times: “The moment you decide that nature caused the effect,” whatever that effect is, “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.” The sudden appearance of a seeming depiction of the True Cross on a water-stained wall, or a human face on Mars, is only interesting insofar as we believe that some agent (whether God or aliens) caused the appearance; once we discover that it is only the residue of a mechanical failure in the pipes, or an especially blurry photographic development, coupled with the human brain’s tendency to search for patterns, the phenomena is no longer interesting. Messages are only meaningful inasmuch as they are produced by agents; anything else is not a message at all.

In that way, a home run (or an ace), can only be thought of as having a meaning insofar as it is a purposive act: only a home run hit by a god—that is, a home run hit by a being who can hit (or not hit) home runs as he chooses—could possess meaning. We can know this because even the greatest of home run hitters cannot produce one at will (despite what is rumored about the 1932 World Series and Babe Ruth): hitting a home run requires the cooperation of sudden bursts of wind and other hidden forces beyond the control of any single person. In other words, hitting a home run, or a hole-in-one, might seem like the most intentional act possible—but it isn’t, as the “better to be lucky” adage ruefully communicates. Both are somewhere between a face on Mars and a message, and probably more like the former than the latter.

Antonin Scalia’s dream, in short, of a perfectly communicated law, one that is as easily interpreted as a hole-in-one, is an impossible one: anything so easily understood would not be worth the (minimal) effort it would take to understand. As Fish says, intention “is not something added to language; it is what must already be assumed if what are otherwise mere physical phenomena (rocks or scratch marks) are to be experienced as language.” Which, one supposes, is why hole-in-ones are so fascinating to golfers: they are a moment of in which the physical, non-human world appears to take an interest in our affairs, a moment where the divine appears, for just a moment, to intervene. The reason they can appear so is because of their strange mixture of both intention and random chance, which blurs a line so definitively drawn.

Perhaps that is the reason for the adage: it may be that human beings long for release from the consequences of their own actions—which is to say, release from a world so divided between human actions and natural events. If there is a link between that longing, and the world we now have—one in which, for example, torture is acceptable behavior, but the connection between productivity and wages has been effectively severed—it is probably too much to say that such is the shared intention of the foreign Marxist and the Supreme Court justice. But I may be a poor kind of reader for the purposes of these gentlemen: unlike them, I would rather be good than lucky.