Friday, September 25, 2015

How actions are like literature

The author is magic

"Death of the Author" is a famous 1967 essay by Roland Barthes regarding the interpretation of literature.  He argues that the intentions and context of the author are irrelevant when interpreting the author's work.  At most, the author provides a single interpretation, which must compete with all other interpretations.

"Intent! It's fucking magic!" is an influential 2010 essay by Kinsey Hope regarding the moral judgment actions.  There's a common circumstance wherein a person tries to justify their mistakes by emphasizing their good intentions.  The essay snarkily observes that good intentions have the strange and magical power to erase all harms.  "Intention isn't magic" has become a common saying among activists.

Though the two essays live in completely different contexts (literary criticism vs moral discourse), I would argue that the sentiments behind each are substantially similar.  Indeed, in the modern age, when we increasingly look at popular works of fiction through moral lenses, and when "actions" often consist of tweets or other comments, it is questionable whether they even live in different contexts.

Each essay is questioning the importance of intention. The intention of the author, the intention of the actor, what is the relevance of either to our judgment of the result?  If an poet fails to articulate a compelling interpretation of their own work, does that make it a bad poem?  If a celebrity says they didn't mean to offend anyone with their comments on black people, does that protect them from charges of racism?

Intent isn't completely irrelevant; rather, people frequently overrate its relevance.  Once we abolish the common misconception of the authority of intent, we can then quibble over the relatively small ways in which intent might matter after all.

Intention as predictor

Some small insight can be gained by considering a form of fiction which maybe wasn't so popular in 1967: webcomics.  Alternatively, we can consider fanfiction, ongoing TV shows, or any medium where we consume the work at the same time that it is actively updated.  As the work is being updated, our interpretations of it must also be updated.  Insofar as we are offering a coherent interpretation of a single body of work (as opposed to string of interpretations of a series of disconnected works), our interpretations must care about what will happen in future updates.

Intention doesn't change the past, but it is a predictor of the future.  Thus it is necessary to speculate on the intention of the author(s), at least until the time of completion of the work.

When we apply moral judgment to past actions, it might seem that intention doesn't matter because past actions are already past.  But moral judgment is the most future-looking way of looking at the past.  The practical purpose of morally criticizing an action is not to lament what has already happened and can never be changed, but to discourage similar actions in the future.  Thus, moral judgments care not just about results, but about the processes by which the results are produced.  In short, moral judgments must care about intention.

Still, intent is not the end-all-be-all.  A person can have the best of intentions but still produce evil actions.  Actions are the product of intent and execution.  Declaring one's own positive intent is a poor defense against moral criticism, because a positive intent may still be executed poorly.  The purpose of moral criticism may be to suggest better methods of execution, not necessarily to impugn people's motives.

Similarly, in literature, we want to look at what's there, not just what's intended.  An author can intend to write the greatest literature in the world, but so what?