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Artworks, including literary texts, are the products of human action.Typically
our understanding of artifacts is enabled by grasping how and why they were
made. Understanding how an artifact is made “ which involves grasping the
maker™s intentions “ is generally relevant to understanding the artifact. Prima
facie, what is appropriate to the understanding of the results of human action in
general is appropriate to the understanding of artworks and texts.
The case for intentionalism is often obscured by the tendency of arguments in
this arena to be fixated on the interpretation of literary language “ that is, the inter-
pretation of literature at the level of the meaning of words and sentences. For at this
level of interpretation, one might be readily disposed to agree that meaning can be
derived without recourse to intention, but instead through linguistic conventions of
the sort easily available in dictionaries, grammars, and, perhaps, tropologies.That is,
the meaning of words and sentences are putatively fixed by these conventions in a
way that arguably renders speaker intention redundant or misleading.
Of course, it is far from settled that such linguistic conventions banish concern
with a speaker™s intention. For it can be argued that, in fact, we use linguistic con-
ventions as a means both to communicate and to discern speaker/author intention
“ or, in other words, that even at the level of words and sentences the object of
interpretation is authorial intention. But rather than keep the argument stalled at
this level of debate, it is worthwhile to point out that most of our interpretive activ-
ity with respect to art in general, but also with regard to literature, is not devoted to
linguistic interpretation, and, therefore, not so governed by convention.
When attempting to determine the significance of a character, of a plot struc-
ture, of the placement of figures on a picture plane, of a recurring motif, of a
stretch of film editing, of a modern dance solo, of the roof of a postmodern med-
ical center, and so on, we are not dealing with articulations whose significance is
fixed with anywhere near the determinateness that a dictionary assigns to a word.
Thus, even if the appeal to convention alone has some intuitive appeal in discus-
sions of the interpretation of linguistic meaning proper, the attraction vanishes as
we proceed to other levels of interpretation. For most artistic activity, including a
great deal of literary composition, simply lacks the relatively determinate meaning
conventions of words and sentences. Most art cannot be simply “read” in the
184 INTERPRETATION INTENTION
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strictest sense of the word. Rather, we comprehend it as we do any other sort of
human action and the products thereof “ by tracking it, explaining it, interpreting
it in the light of our best hypotheses about intentions.
Even if the interpretation of linguistic meaning could advance considering
linguistic conventions alone “ an extremely controversial (and, I think, dubious)
premise “ this kind of interpretation could not be generalized as a model for all
literary and artistic interpretation. For although every artwork depends upon con-
ventions, most of these conventions are not of the code-like sort of linguistic con-
ventions that anti-intentionalists rely upon so heavily in order to motivate their
case.We approach artworks not as codes to be deciphered, but as actions and the
products of action issuing from the intentional activity of rational agents “ albeit
against a backdrop of artistic traditions and relatively fluid conventions.
Artworks are naturally explained and understood in the way in which it is nat-
ural to explain and understand any other kind of intentional activity or the prod-
ucts thereof. We approach artworks as the productions of rational agents,
negotiating the logic of a concrete situation. In this light, intentions are relevant to
understanding artworks and their invocation is legitimate. Pace the anti-intention-
alists, there are no special metaphysical or epistemological barriers standing in the
way of intentionalist understanding when it comes to artworks. Indeed, despite
the claims of the anti-intentionalists about the peculiar aims of art, our abiding
aim and interest in understanding human action and its products warrants our ref-
erences to intention when it comes to explaining artworks.
What the intentionalist wants to establish is that intention has a legitimate role
and relevance in understanding and explaining artworks. In this way, that which I
am calling “intentionalism” stands at odds with “anti-intentionalism.” However,
this conception of intentionalism does not entail the stronger claim that in
explaining the intention manifested by an artwork, we have, in every case, deliv-
ered the final word on the object. Criticism may have more things to say about an
artwork than isolating or illuminating authorial intent. Rather, what intentional-
ism maintains, in the face of anti-intentionalism, is that reference to intention is
relevant and legitimate.
However, insofar as intention is at least relevant to our understanding and
explanation of artworks, our best hypotheses about the creative intentions mani-
fested in a work do serve to constrain whatever else we wish to say about the
work. That is, whatever we want to say about the artwork should be consonant
with the ways in which we speak of intentional activity generally. This does not
preclude discussion of the unintended consequences of the artist™s activity. Never-
theless, talk of unintended consequences needs to take shape against a background
understanding of what was intended.
Now, the recognition that intentionalism is compatible with the discussion of
unintended consequences, should, I think, reassure the practitioner of the hermeneu-
tics of suspicion that a philosophical commitment to intentionalism is no impedi-
ment to his or her critical project. What more does the project require than the
preceding, qualified concession of the possibility of the unintended consequences of
INTENTION HERMENEUTICS SUSPICION 185
AND THE OF


action? However, there is a certain sort of problem, I suspect, that continues to vex
suspicious hermeneuts, despite this abstract resolution “ namely, the question of how
interpretation is to proceed in cases where the critic wishes to impute to a work
some significance that contradicts our best hypotheses about the intended import of
a particular work. In order to address this issue, let us look at a specific example.

III. THE CASE OF JULES VERNE

Jules Verne™s Mysterious Island was published in 1874. It belongs to the genre of the
robinsonade that was inaugurated by Daniel Defoe™s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and
continued by Johann Rudolf Wyss™ The Swiss Family Robinson (1813). The basic
saga that such stories rehearse is that of marooned wayfarers who, in the face of
natural adversity, transform their deserted islands into outposts of civilization.
In Verne™s Mysterious Island, a band of Union loyalists escapes from the Con-
federacy during the throes of the American Civil War by hijacking a hot-air bal-
loon. The all-male company includes an engineer, a journalist, an educated,
presumably middle-class adolescent, an ordinary sailor, a former slave, and a dog.
Once aloft, their balloon is blown wildly off-course until “ during a whirling
tempest “ it finally sets down on an island somewhere in the Pacific. Most of the
story is preoccupied with their exploration of the island, their discovery of the
means to survival, and, gradually, their introduction of American techniques of
agriculture and, then, industry to their habitat. The text is an exercise in applied
science. Eventually, the marooned balloonatics transform their island into a thriv-
ing, productive, fantastically efficient, modern hamlet.
However, they do not achieve this singlehandedly. They are surreptitiously
provided all sorts of advantages by an invisible benefactor “ Captain Nemo, com-
mander of the Nautilus whose adventures had been previously recounted in
Verne™s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo™s interventions are
revealed toward the end of the novel, which concludes with a volcanic eruption,
the destruction of the island, and the fortuitous rescue of the island colony.
Mysterious Island has already been subjected to a famous symptomatic reading
by Pierre Macheray.6 According to Macheray, the novel rests on a contradiction.
On the one hand, Macheray contends, the novel “ as a kind of scientific-industrial
celebration “ is committed to a faith in the inevitable subjugation of nature to the
forces of enlightened progress. But, on the other hand, insofar as the volcano
wipes out the accomplishments of not only the Union settlers but those of the
super-scientist Nemo as well, it signals a certain pessimism toward the ultimate
prospects of technological progress.
Now I am not really convinced by this interpretation. It is far from clear that we
should interpret the volcano allegorically as the sign of an irrevocable limit to human
progress. Nor is it evident that Verne is aligned to such a delirious confidence in sci-
ence that the volcanic explosion can serve as a refutation of his (Verne™s) putative
view. However, there does seems to be another contradiction in Mysterious Island “
one that is directly relevant to the claims of a hermeneutics of suspicion.
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Quite clearly, the narrative of Mysterious Island is pro-Union and pro-aboli-
tionist.The novel shows no sympathy for the Confederacy or for slavery.Abraham
Lincoln is spoken of in reverential tones; the settlers call their new land “Lincoln
Island” in his honor.The Civil War is presented as a struggle to end slavery, and this
is never represented as anything less than a holy crusade.The author forthrightly
allies himself against racism throughout the text.
Nevertheless, readers of our own day cannot fail to note a great deal of resid-
ual racism in the book. The former slave, Neb, continues to call the engineer
“Master” throughout the text. Neb is represented as superstitious, naive, docile,
and childlike. Neb develops a special affinity for the monkey that the colonists
domesticate, and, indeed, the monkey comes to perform as well as assist in many
of Neb™s kitchen duties. It is hard not to discern an implicit analogy between the
monkey and Neb in the text. It is true that the monkey also has a special relation-
ship to Pencroft, the sailor, but Pencroft “ as the representative of the working class
“ is only one notch above Neb in the social order of the island.A character™s place
in the social hierarchy of the colony can be charted in proportion to his intimacy
with the monkey.And the monkey is virtually Neb™s double.
Though drawing generalizations from characters to whole classes of people
can be problematic in the analysis of literary works, since all the characters in Mys-
terious Island are patently types, the inference from Neb to the idea that Verne is
portraying African Americans as docile, childlike, naive, and rather close to the
simian origins of the human race seems irresistible.7 And, of course, in recent
years, we have come to see the racism inherent in this variety of paternalism, even
if Verne thought that characterizing African Americans as children served as a
means for advancing the case for the humane treatment of people of color.
Reading Mysterious Island, we take Verne™s writing to intentionally portray
African Americans as docile, gentle, childlike, and somewhat akin to the intelligent
higher primates. We can also glean from the context of the novel that Verne
intends this portrayal to bolster his apparent conviction that African Americans
deserve humane treatment. The paternalism here is benign in the sense that it is
not intended to advance racial oppression. It opposes racist practices like slavery.
And yet, at the same time, the portrayal of Neb strikes us as racist. But this appears
to yield a contradiction: that Mysterious Island is both anti-racist and racist at the
same time “ anti-racist when read intentionalistically and racist when read from
the standpoint of the hermeneutics of suspicion.
Persuaded of the intractability of this apparent contradiction, the contempo-
rary critic, committed to the importance of emphatically identifying the racist
tendencies of Mysterious Island, may be prompted to discount altogether the rele-
vance of the textual evidence of Verne™s intentions by means of a radical gesture:
declaring intentionalist interpretation illegitimate tout court. That is, such a critic
may argue that if intentionalist interpretation is somehow an impediment to
attributing racist biases to Mysterious Island, then it should be forsaken. However,
this line of attack is unnecessary. For not only is intentionalism no impediment to
attributing racism to Mysterious Island, but, in fact, the attribution of racism in this
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AND THE OF


case “ as with similar attributions of racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, and so
on “ actually requires that Mysterious Island be approached intentionalistically.

I V. D E F E N D I N G I N T E N T I O N A L I S M

Clearly, interpreting Mysterious Island intentionalistically is no impediment to
finding its treatment of Neb to be racist. Of course, the evidence indicates that
Verne did not intend the book to be racist. But the same evidence indicates that
he did intend to portray Neb as childlike, naive, and docile; and in doing so, he
intentionally performed an act “ he intentionally wrote “ in such a way that what
he produced was racist. He may not have intended to write “racistically,” but in
intentionally writing in the way he did, he produced something that was racist.
Perhaps Verne in fact wrote intentionally in the way he did “ intentionally
portraying Neb as docile “ in the belief that this would be a beneficial rather than
an oppressive way of representing African Americans. But this intentionalist
account of Verne™s writing of Mysterious Island is compatible with noting that “ in
fact and at the same time “ the product of Verne™s intentional activity was racist,
albeit unintentionally racist.
Intentionalism, as I have advocated it, requires that we acknowledge artistic
activity to be intentional activity and that we be constrained to speak about it in
the ways we are constrained to speak about intentional activity generally. How-
ever, when speaking of intentional activity generally, there is no problem in admit-
ting that in doing something intentionally under one description, one may be also
doing something else under another description, even though one is unaware of
the applicability of this alternate description.
Consider that someone intentionally lighting a cigarette in 1910 might have also
at the same time been incurring lung cancer. Indeed, convinced by cigarette adver-
tisements that proclaimed smoking to be healthful, such a smoker might inhale with
the intention of improving his body when in fact he was harming it. Similarly,Verne
by intentionally portraying Neb as docile “ in a way that an intentionalist interpre-
tation of the text could elucidate “ did produce a representation that was racist, even
though Verne did not know it to be racist.Verne intended to depict Neb as childlike,
though Verne did not realize that this activity is subsumable under the category of
racism.Thus, illuminating Verne™s intentions does not preclude going on to say that
he produced something that is racist, even if he did not know it.
Indeed, Verne may have produced something that was racist even in the
process of intending to produce something that was anti-racist.This should come
as no surprise.A lot has been learned about the nature of racism since 1874.
Thus, intentionalist criticism does not impede criticism in terms of attribu-
tions of racism of the preceding sort. For one can identify the product of inten-
tional activity to be racist even if racism as such is not intended by the activity.
Moreover, this, it seems to me, is all that a hermeneutics of suspicion requires.
Therefore, it is a mistake to think that intentionalism is incompatible with con-
temporary symptomatic criticism.
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AND


Undoubtedly, the intuition that intentionalism is incompatible with the
hermeneutics of suspicion derives from the view that intentionalism mandates
that if, for example, a text is said to be racist, then the author should be cognizant
of that racism: that he must have intended it; and, perhaps, even that he must be
prepared to recognize accusations of racism. However, it is hard to see why inten-
tionalism should be committed to these tests. For they go beyond the view that
the work is a product of a rational agent such that, pace anti-intentionalism, the
artist™s intentions are always relevant to understanding and explaining an artwork.
Surely identifying Verne™s paternalist intentions is relevant to understanding
and explaining Verne™s treatment of Neb in Mysterious Island. But claiming the rel-
evance of hypothesizing Verne™s intentions for understanding Mysterious Island
does not entail that everything we may want to say about Mysterious Island is
something that Verne intended to say or to imply by means of Mysterious Island.
There is no reason to suppose that everything implied by Mysterious Island is
something that Verne intended to imply, just as there is no reason to think that I
know or believe everything that is implied by my actual mathematical beliefs.
The conviction that the intentions of artists are relevant to interpretation is
not the view that interpretation is solely a matter of tracking authorial intention.
Call the latter view authorism. If anyone holds it, authorism may conflict with the
hermeneutics of suspicion. But intentionalism does not.
So far, I have argued that intentionalism is no impediment to the hermeneu-
tics of suspicion. For properly understood, in its claim that authorial intentions are
relevant to interpretation, intentionalism is compatible with all that is necessary
for hermeneutical suspicion. Of course, this is not much of a finding. It only has
what weight it does in a dialectical context in which many too hurriedly surmise
that these forms of interpretation are fated for conflict. However, a more ambi-
tious thesis is also worth contemplating here, namely: intentionalism is not only
compatible with a hermeneutics of suspicion; the latter requires the former.
Recall the analysis of Neb in Mysterious Island. We reason from the paternalis-
tic portrayal of Neb as docile, as childlike, and as naive, and from the implicit com-
parison of Neb in the chain of being with a monkey, that, at least in terms of its
representation of African Americans as a type, Mysterious Island is racist (or has
racist tendencies).8 But in making this attribution, we are presuming that Verne™s
writing is informed by certain intentions. For instance, we infer that in writing
about Neb™s obedience toward and faith in the white engineer Harding, Verne
intends to portray Neb as docile. When in the dialogue Verne has Neb address
Harding as “Master,” we presuppose that Verne intends us to take Neb™s language
as sincere rather than sarcastic.Throughout, we assume that Verne means us to take
the portrayal of Neb “straight.”That is,Verne did not “ if our own interpretation
of the text as racist is to have any purchase value “ intend irony.
An interpretation of Mysterious Island as having racist tendencies would be
undercut if we believed that Verne™s portrayal of Neb was ironic “ a satire intended

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