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
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?
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
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
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.
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
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?