Sunday Book-Thought 65

Many aspects of textuality are hotly contested, not the least being the commonsense view that texts should mean what authors meant them to mean rather than what some clever or hostile or mischievous or incompetent or incompetent or unsocialized reader makes of them. Regardless of one’s stand with regard to authorial intention, two things seem fairly clear. The first is that no matter how radical one’s objection is to the concept of intention as a controlling element of textual interpretation, some aspect of intention by some agent of intention is inescapable in any reading act. Texts do not themselves have either intention or meaning; they are inanimate physical phenomena. If they have purpose it is that which is invested in them by authors or attributed to them by readers. The second is that certainty in identifying and describing intention, even when it is the intention of the reader or commenter on the text, can never be achieved or conveyed completely or conclusively. Even for readers who reach sympathetically across the gulf dividing them from authors, there is no escaping the fact of the “death of the author” that curtails communication. Nor can one ignore the ways in which the meanings of written texts tend to expand beyond the putative “intentions” of their origins or originators. But these observations fall short of demonstrating an autonomy for texts; for these caveats seem balanced somehow by the fact that even the most obdurately hostile opponent of “intentionality as an element of interpretation” employs some posited construct of textual agency. Authors may have lost control over meaning in spite of their best efforts, or they may have willingly abdicated control. Either way, readers knowingly or blindly participate in a negotiation over authority in script acts, finding or inventing concepts of authorship and intention, which they then ignore or flout or seek to embrace. The fact that readers can flout the intentions of writers, either by indifference or by malice aforethought, does not indicate that the script was without intended meanings. The fact that friendly readers seek to identify what those intentions were does not indicate that they can succeed in their quest.
– Peter L. Shillingsburg, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 55-56.

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