The truth is that we can only deny the primacy of authorial intention if we first abstract the poem—if we divorce it from the somatic dimension of language. Some theorists are good at doing this; they do it in a way that makes their abstractions sound persuasive, as if the author’s intention exists only in the concepts that theorists abstract from the work. But a poem communicates first through the physicality of its language; long after one has developed an understanding of the poem, it continues to communicate with each reading. This is what Eliot meant when he said that a poem can communicate before it is understood. (I would go so far as to say that the greatest poems continue communicate—and freshly—even after many readings.) Some theorists would love to have us believe that understanding is more important than communication; some would say that poems can’t communicate, because after all, if one removes authorial intention from the equation, who is communicating with whom?
None of this is to deny the fact that poets communicate more than they themselves understand. But doing so is part of their intention—just one aspect of the radical openness (call it “negative capability”) that lies at the root of the poetic impulse.
I felt called to mount this particular hobby horse again (see here) because of a post over at Kevin Kelly’s blog The Technium. Here’s how it opens:
The library of the future will contain a unified text comprised of all books and magazines and newspapers (and blogs) completely hyperlinked and co-located. This aggregation has already begun to happen as Google, Amazon and others digitize the books of the our libraries and keep them machine readable. What if you could read all the books at once and deduce the patterns among their billions of words?Kelly ends his post by saying that “being able to measure and quantify our words and pictures […] will be a key instrument in understanding and managing the global social infrastructure.”
Some call that Culturomics because it would provide a quantitive analysis of culture, but I think of it as reading the universal library.
I posted this comment in response:
Let me go out on a limb and say that the value of “reading the universal library,” whatever cute meme-hopeful tag we give it for promotional purposes, rests on two fallacious assumptions. One is that ideas are detachable from their contexts (they are not); the second is that statistics can be usefully applied to language (they cannot). What this kind of reductionism almost inevitably results in is a warping of meanings. We can reasonably expect such a procedure to tag “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a text about travel, winter, and sleep disorders. There is no way, that is, of grasping the meaning of Frost’s poem without reading Frost’s poem; and there are no ideas in the poem that can be detached from it. “Culturomics” is nothing more than a pastime of computer-addicted individuals who seem to think that the computational mentality required by their favorite toy describes something “real.” It does not. It is a projection, just as the fundamentalist who hears God’s voice telling him to strap on an explosive vest is reacting to a projection of his own mentality. As for “Culturomics” being “a key instrument in understanding and managing the global social infrastructure,” I can only say, “Dream on.”As soon as I posted the comment, I wondered what bur had worked its way under my saddle.
In trying to follow the thread of my thinking back to what it snagged on in the first place, I see that it’s the notion of “reductionism.” The urge to reduce the whole of human expression in language (“the universal library”) to a set of patterns (ideas) is the same urge that drives literary theorists to reduce poems to their linguistic and/or cultural patterns—and that drives Tea Partiers, for example, to reduce the Constitution to a set of inflexible rules: exactly the opposite of what its authors intended.