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tual meanings (that are richer than the putative authorial ones), we go with the
latter because maximizing aesthetic satisfaction is our goal.As a matter of aesthetic
policy, the best procedure is always to regard authorial intention as irrelevant
because it either adds nothing to our aesthetic satisfaction or it may even stand in
the way of arriving at the most enjoyable experience of the work.
On Beardsley™s view, there is generally a determinate best interpretation.
However, the aesthetic argument can also be mobilized by theorists who eschew
determinate meanings, preferring the “play of signification of the text.” Here, the
argument might begin by recalling that a text can be interpreted either as the
utterance of an author or as a word sequence.36 Read as a word sequence, the text
may have multiple meanings compatible with the conventions of language. Given
this, the question becomes,What is the best way to read the text “ authorially or,
so to speak, textually?
In defense of reading the text as a word sequence, one can invoke the Kantian
notion that aesthetic experience involves the play of understanding and imagina-
tion. That is, taking the text as a word sequence allows us to contemplate it for
multiple, diverse meanings and their possible connections. It provides the best way
for us to maximize our aesthetic experience of the text, permitting us to track the
text for its play of meaning and alternative import. Reading for authorial intent,
where the author intends a determinate meaning rather than an “open text,”37
may obstruct the delectation of the various shifts in meaning that would other-
wise be available to the reader who takes the text as a word sequence.Thus, for the
purpose of maximizing our aesthetic experience “ construed here to be a matter
of cognitive play with meanings “ the best policy is to attend to the work as a
word sequence rather than as an authorial utterance.
The conservative version of this aesthetic argument might hold that texts
could be read as word sequences or as authorial utterances and that there is no
reason why the intentionalist preference for authorial utterance must be given
priority over the possibility of reading the text as a word sequence. Both readings
are possible, and neither recommendation is binding.38 So, if a good reason “ like
the Kantian aesthetic invoked earlier “ can be advanced for anti-intentionalist
interpretive practices, then the claims of intentionalism can be suspended. This
does not preclude intentionalist interpretation, but only denies that interpretation
must always be constrained by intentionalist considerations.
A more radical version of the aesthetic argument would advocate that inten-
tionalist considerations are always best bracketed because they stand in the way of, or
are irrelevant to, maximizing interpretive play.39 Concern for authorial intent
“closes” down the text; it limits the artwork as a source of interpretive enjoyment; it
restrains the imagination (of the audience) unduly. This recommendation may be
accompanied by the vague and perhaps confusing clich© that artworks are inex-
haustible, insofar as word sequences, ex hypothesi, will tend to have more meanings
than authorial utterances. But the argument can proceed without claiming that art-
works are literally inexhaustible; only to urge that, for the purpose of making liter-
ary experience more exciting, we should treat artworks that way, rather as Morris
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Zapp in David Lodge™s Changing Places keeps reinterpreting Jane Austen in the light
of every literary theory that comes down the pike.That is, keeping artworks inter-
pretively open “ for example, by reading for word sequence meaning rather than
authorial meaning “ makes for more zestful encounters with art.
The radical version of the aesthetic argument seems to me to underwrite a
great deal of contemporary literary criticism. Ironically, where someone like
Beardsley supports anti-intentionalism because of his convictions about the
autonomy of the artwork and the literary text,40 contemporary literary critics
advocate anti-intentionalism for the sake of the freedom and autonomy of the
reader. In Barthes, for example, the “death of the author” corresponds to the birth
of the reader.
Admittedly, for Barthes, this is grounded in ontological arguments about the
nature of writing.Yet one feels that, with Barthes and his followers, the ontologi-
cal argument itself is attractive because its conclusion suits their preference for an
autonomous reader, one who creatively participates in making the meaning of the
text by tracing the multiple and not necessarily converging linguistic trajectories
that reading divorced from a concern with authorial utterance allows.41
Aesthetic arguments for anti-intentionalism are a subclass of the general view
that interpretations are purpose-relative.42 One could advance anti-intentionalism,
then, for purposes other than aesthetic gratification under the banner of purpose-
relative interpretation; one could, for example, maintain that anti-intentionalism
best realizes some moral or ideological goal, which outweighs whatever aims
intentionalism supports.43 Since I believe that the purpose that critics most often
presuppose anti-intentionalism serves best is aesthetic enrichment, however, I focus
the discussion on this issue.
With aesthetic arguments, the anti-intentionalist admits, in my reconstruction
of the debate, that one could read for authorial intent, but maintains that we have
certain aims in pursuing artworks that, so to speak, trump our concerns with
authorial meaning. These aims center on the maximization of aesthetic satisfac-
tion. Aesthetic satisfaction is the overriding interest that we have in consuming
artworks. So in order to secure said satisfaction, we are best advised to take it that
the aesthetically most satisfying interpretation outranks all others, most notably
where a competing view is an intentionalist interpretation.
In order to develop this argument fully, the anti-intentionalist needs to say
something about aesthetic satisfaction.This may cause difficulties in several regis-
ters.The first is the long-standing problem of defining the way in which we are to
understand “the aesthetic” in aesthetic satisfaction. Moreover, there may be rival
views of what constitutes aesthetic satisfaction “ Beardsleyan determinate mean-
ing of a certain sort, or the inexhaustible play of meaning in the text. Which of
these views must the anti-intentionalist endorse? But even supposing these tech-
nical difficulties with characterizing aesthetic satisfaction can be met, I remain
unconvinced by aesthetic arguments for anti-intentionalism.
The heart of my disagreement is that it seems unproven that we have overrid-
ing interests in maximizing aesthetic satisfaction with respect to artworks. My rea-
174 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
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son for reservations here have to do with my suspicion that in dealing with art-
works we have more interests than aesthetic interests “ as “aesthetic interests” are
usually construed within the philosophical tradition “ and that there is no reason
to think that these interests are always trumped by aesthetic ones. Indeed, as I
argue, these other-than-aesthetic interests may in fact mandate constraints on the
pursuit of aesthetic interest in ways that count against anti-intentionalism and for
intentionalism. I would not wish to deny that we have interests in securing aes-
thetic satisfaction from artworks. But that interest needs to be reconciled with
other, potentially conflictive interests that we also bring to artworks.
What are these other interests or purposes? Broadly speaking, I would call
them “conversational.”When we read a literary text or contemplate a painting, we
enter a relationship with its creator that is roughly analogous to a conversation.
Obviously, it is not as interactive as an ordinary conversation, for we are not
receiving spontaneous feedback concerning our own responses. But just as an
ordinary conversation gives us a stake in understanding our interlocutor, so does
interaction with an artwork.
We would not think that we had had a genuine conversation with someone
whom we were not satisfied we understood. Conversations, rewarding ones at
least, involve a sense of community or communion that itself rests on communi-
cation. A fulfilling conversation requires that we have the conviction of having
grasped what our interlocutor meant or intended to say. This is evinced by the
extent to which we struggle to clarify their meanings. A conversation that left us
with only our own clever construals or educated guesses, no matter how aesthet-
ically rich, would leave us with the sense that something was missing.That we had
neither communed nor communicated.
Not all conversations involve both communion and communication. Probably
many firings do not. But what, for want of a better term, we might call serious
conversations do have, as a constitutive value, the prospect of community. Like-
wise, I want to maintain, this prospect of community supplies a major impetus
motivating our interest in engaging literary texts and artworks.We may read to be
entertained, to learn, and to be moved, but we also seek out artworks in order to
converse or commune with their makers.We want to understand the author, even
if that will lead to rejecting his or her point of view.
An important part of why we are interested in art is that it affords not only
an opportunity to reap aesthetic satisfaction but is an opportunity to exercise
our interpretive abilities in the context of a genuine conversation. Clever con-
struals, even if aesthetically dazzling, do not necessarily serve our desire to
commune or communicate with another person. Insofar as our pursuit of art is
underwritten by, and is an exemplary occasion for, a generic human interest in
communicating with others, it is not clear that a concern with aesthetics alone
serves our purposes best.
Moreover, in stressing our conversational interest in artworks in terms of
understanding the artist, I am not reverting to the notion that we pursue art in
order to commune with remarkable personalities. Instead, I am making the more
ART, INTENTION, CONVERSATION 175
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modest claim that art is obviously in part a matter of communication and that we
bring to it our ordinary human disposition to understand what another human
being is saying to us.
The idea of the maximization of aesthetic satisfaction has a very “consumerist”
ring to it. In Buberesque lingo, it reduces our relation to the text to an I/It relation-
ship.What I am trying to defend is the idea that, with artworks, we are also interested
in an I/Thou relation to the author of the text.This interest in communicating with
others is perhaps so deeply a part of our motive in, for example, reading that we may
not have it in the forefront of our attention. But when we pick up Tom Wolfe™s Bon-
fire of the Vanities, surely one of our abiding interests is to learn what someone else,
namely Tom Wolfe, thinks about contemporary New York.And, the extent to which
we have this conversational interest in the text limits the range of aesthetically
enhancing interpretations we can countenance.That is, the purpose of aesthetic max-
imization will have to be brought into line with our conversational interests, which
interests are patently concerned with authorial intent.
Furthermore, if I am right about the conversational interests that we have in art-
works and literary texts, then our concern with authorial intention will not simply
issue from the mutual respect we have for our interlocutor; it will also be based on
an interest in protecting our sense of self-respect in the process of conversation. In
order to clarify this point, a somewhat extended example may be useful.
In contemporary film criticism, films are often commended because they
transgress what are called the codes of Hollywood filmmaking, thereby striking this
or that blow for emancipation. Within the context of recent film criticism, it is
appropriate to regard disturbances of continuity editing, disorienting narrative
ellipses, or disruptions of eyeline matches as subversions of a dominant and ideo-
logically suspect form of filmmaking, and given the historical evolution of the
language game in which avant-garde filmmaking is practiced, the attribution of
such meanings to contemporary films is warranted, especially on intentionalist
grounds.
Once interpretations of narrative incoherences in recent films as subversions
or transgressions of Hollywood International were in place, however, film critics,
such as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, began to attempt to project those read-
ings backward.That is, if a narrative incoherence or an editing discontinuity in a
film in 1988 counts as a transgression, why not count a similar disturbance in a
film of 1959 as equally transgressive? Thus, a hack film by Edward Wood, Plan 9
from Outer Space, is celebrated as transgressive as if it were a postmodernist exercise
in collage.44
Plan 9 from Outer Space is a cheap, slapdash attempt to make a feature film for
very little, and in cutting corners to save money it violates “ in outlandish ways “
many of the decorums of Hollywood filmmaking that later avant-gardists also
seek to affront. So insofar as the work of contemporary avant-gardists is aestheti-
cally valued for its transgressiveness, why not appreciate Plan 9 from Outer Space
under an analogous interpretation? Call it “unintentional modernism,” but it is
modernism nonetheless and appreciable as such.45
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AND


One reason to withhold such an interpretation from Plan 9, of course, is that
transgression is an intentional concept, and all the evidence indicates that Edward
Wood did not have the same intentions to subvert the Hollywood style of film-
making that contemporary avant-gardists have. Indeed, given the venue Wood
trafficked in, it seems that the best hypothesis about his intentions is that he was
attempting to imitate the Hollywood style of filmmaking in the cheapest way
possible. Given what we know of Edward Wood and the B-film world in which
he practiced his trade, it is implausible to attribute to him the intention of
attempting to subvert the Hollywood codes of filmmaking for the kinds of pur-
poses endorsed by contemporary avant-gardists.
An intention is made up of beliefs and desires. It is incredible to attribute to
Edward Wood the kinds of beliefs that contemporary avant-garde filmmakers have
about the techniques, purposes, and effects of subverting Hollywood cinema.
Those beliefs (and avant-garde desires) were not available in the film world
Edward Wood inhabited, nor can we surmise that even if Wood could have for-
mulated such beliefs, it would be plausible to attribute to him the intention to
implement them. For it is at the least uncharitable to assign to Wood the belief
that his audiences could have interpreted his narrative discontinuities and editing
howlers as blows struck against a Hollywood aesthetic.46 That is, it is virtually
impossible that Wood could have had the intentions “ the beliefs and the desires “
that contemporary avant-gardists have about the meanings of disjunctive exposi-
tion or the effects of such exposition on audiences.
Historically, it is undoubtedly most accurate to regard Edward Wood™s narra-
tive non sequiturs and nonstandard editing as mistakes within the norms of Hol-
lywood filmmaking. One would think that the critic interested in transgression
would want to have a way to distinguish between mistakes and transgressions.And
the most obvious way to make such a distinction is to require that transgressions
be intentional, which requires that the filmmaker in question have the knowledge
and the will to violate Hollywood norms of filmmaking as a form of artistic
protest. Insofar as it is anachronistic to impute the requisite knowledge (of the dis-
course of avant-garde theory) or the desire to subvert Hollywood codes to Wood,
it is better to regard his violations of certain norms as mistakes. And, in general, it
would seem that connoisseurs of artistic transgression would have an interest in
being able to distinguish mistakes from subversions “ interests that should drive
them toward intentionalism.
Nevertheless, it is at this point that an aesthetic argument for anti-inten-
tionalism may be brought to bear. To wit: if a transgression interpretation of
Plan 9 from Outer Space yields a more aesthetically satisfying encounter with the
film, and our primary purpose in interpretation is in promoting maximum aes-
thetic satisfaction, why not suspend qualms about intention and take Plan 9
from Outer Space as a masterpiece of postmodernist disjunction à la lettre? Here,
the anti-intentionalist might agree that such an interpretation cannot be
squared with what it is plausible to say of the film, given the possible intentions
of the historical director. But why not sacrifice the distinction between mis-
ART, INTENTION, CONVERSATION 177
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takes and transgressions if in the long run it supplies us with more aesthetically
satisfying experiences?
That is, the argument against taking Plan 9 as a transgression rests on the sup-
position that it is not a reasonable hypothesis of what Wood could have meant in
producing the film. But so what? If we drop a commitment to discerning author-
ial intent, and regard any norm violation as a transgression, would not that make
Plan 9 more aesthetically interesting, and if our premium is on aesthetic interest,
would not anti-intentionalist criticism be our best bet?
But I submit that insofar as we have a conversational interest in artworks, we
will want to reject this sort of aesthetic argument. For if we take ourselves to be
aiming at a genuine conversation, ignoring Wood™s palpable intentions, it seems to
me, can only undermine our sense of ourselves as authentic participants in the
conversation. For, from the point of view of genuine conversation, we are being
willfully silly in regarding Plan 9 as a transgression of Hollywood codes of film-
making. We are behaving as if we believed that a randomly collected series of
phrases, derived from turning the dial of our car radio at one-second intervals,
harbored the message of an oracle, while simultaneously we agree that all forms of
divination are preposterous.
In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard notes that a comic moment
arises when “a sober man engages in sympathetic and confidential conversation
with one whom he does not know is intoxicated, while the observer knows of the
condition. The contradiction lies in the mutuality presupposed by the conversa-
tion, that it is not there, and that the sober man has not noticed its absence.”47 By
analogy, in supposing that Wood is a kind of Godard, we are acting as if a stream of
drunken incoherencies constitute an enigmatic code. Indeed, we are placing our-
selves in an even more ridiculous position than the butt of Kierkegaard™s mishap,
for we have voluntarily entered this situation.
In Kosinski™s Being There, the n¤if Chance utters all sorts of remarks about his

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