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.