intention

Like so many of its modern colleagues in media theory, the term intention refuses to remain within the bounds of a single field and instead opts for a multi-disciplinary approach. A specialized use of the term is evoked in phenomenology where Edmund Husserl used it to denote the relation between an act of perception and the real object perceived. Within philosophic discourse, a highly action-oriented account of the term is given. Even within the animal kingdom, action theory is relevant in explaining the cause of events. If a rock is sent flying through the air and strikes a blow on a tiger’s ear, the tiger will presumably look for an acting entity that brought about the action, for inertia alone is not enough in explaining the event.

The question, then, of how human intentions relate to human actions partly gave rise to another important philosophic concept: the question of free will. In legal theory, intention is used as a technical term to distinguish one degree of crime from another. First and second degree of murder, for example, is differentiated by the extent of deliberation or intent involved in committing the criminal act. On the other hand, intention is rendered irrelevant when trying cases of manslaughter since there was, in all probability, no possibility of acting otherwise. It is believed that only when I could have acted otherwise can I be held morally responsible for what I have done. Thus, I am not accountable for an action that it was not in my power to avoid. But if human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws it is not clear how any action done could ever have been avoided.

The term intentionality is also often framed around the context of rendering something that is seemingly invisible visible. A letter of intent, much like a contract, though not quite so official, presents an agreement that outlines the stated and revealed purposes of the parties in negotiation. The Oxford English Dictionary is arguably used as a guiding text for illuminating strange, unfamiliar words through other, familiar words. The relationship between a description and the described is likened to that of a signifier for the signified. Immediacy is the goal even though a verbal definition cannot afford to be what it is actually about. The idea of representationin both these cases, however, can only be properly operated by someone who already controls a highly articulated theory of language and of the world. Subsequently, conversations with hyenas are often limited since systems of language operate on the assumption that speaking individuals have access to a collective repository of relatively shared understandings of words and concepts. Even though whatever sound uttered through speech may travel through the “Byzantine conduit” of someone else’s brain and open up archives of experience accessible only to that specific individual, there is some interconnection of concepts and a basic knowledge of what certain words denote and connote. As Barbara Johnson describes, “Speakers do not beam meaning from one mind to the other.” Within these contexts, it appears, then, that the goal is to unveil intention.

When it comes to reading texts, an intentionalist theory claims that any subsequent interpretations of said text should be constrained by the author’s intended meaning behind the words upon the page. In direct response to this approach, the critical text, “The Intentional Fallacy”, published in 1946 by M.C. Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt is an attempt to detach the creation from the realm of the artist and place it within public territory. They state, “We argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”

It is not that Beardsley and Wimsatt believe that meaning is somehow magically present in a sequence of words but that the signification of the words is determined by the linguistic rules of a language and is independent of the intentions of the person who wrote them. That is to say, the text contains its own world of meanings and logic. Furthermore, this reading of intention reveals that the author does not possess complete autonomy over the act of writing once the authors and readers accept the communal nature of writing and reading.

In response to “The Intentional Fallacy” E.D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation claims that an author’s intentions are indeed relevant for interpretation. His basis for this is a theory of textual meaning which takes meaning to be an intentional object existent in the mind of a language user. In the case of textual meaning there are two minds to be considered: that of the writer and that of the reader.

Quentin Skinner’s “Motives, Intentions and the Interpretation of Texts” is an application of recent philosophic analyses of the concept of intention and speech act theory on the problems of textual interpretation. Skinner argues that one cannot reduce the meaning of a text to the meanings of the words and sentences which, in some sense, constitute it, but must consider the illocutionary force of the text. Hence, he claims, both what the writer intended and the historical context in which he intended it are relevant as evidence for interpretation.

While these texts continue to retain an authorial presence in providing textual meaning, Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author”, attempts to altogether dispose of the notion that there is an active authorial agent preceding the text itself and in fact, the “scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing…”

He begins with an anecdote from Balzac and proceeds to ask, “Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story…Is it Balzac the individual…Is it Balzac the author…Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology?” To answer his own question, he states that, “We shall never know…for writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away…”

If Barthes understands language to mean loss, then even the text can no longer be understood as a literary convention. While the sassy Vivian in Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” proclaims that “art never expresses anything but itself”, Barthes takes this one step further in stating that not even the text remains meaningful. For Barthes“the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred”.

Barthes analysis can be compared to Foucault’s horrified response to the panoptic gaze of modernization. In attempting to escape the gaze that controls and categorizes the “individual”, Foucault seeks to lose himself through writing: not as a space for assertion of voice or identity preservation, but a place where the self can be lost. That wonderful place Heidegger called“the forgetting of being”.

But in Foucault’s attempt to seek a kind of boundlessness that escapes self-definition through the project of writing, media theory makes it increasingly clear how language both liberates and imprisons Foucault within its own architecture. If Foucault is suspicious of the institutions of church, prison, and hospital (modeled as sites of discipline), we should be equally suspicious of the mediums in which we communicate our suspicions through. Language, just like other mediums, is itself dialectical and self-reflexive. Whatever intended meaning passes through this medium is constantly interrupted by the structures at play within the medium itself. Rosalind Krauss suggests that “…we are not looking at reality, but at the world infested by interpretation or signification, which is to say, reality distended by the gaps or blanks which are the formal preconditions of the sign.”

And it is precisely the doubled reality created through mediums of art that Adorno and Horkheimer are wary of. If mediums are the double or triple life of “reality”, the modern culture industry renders whatever is doubled mundane and fails to produce a reflexive and mediated relationship between subject and object. By diverting attention towards the surface content, the form remains basically intact and every element of mass culture continues to “follow the same formula”. All the while the culture industry reinforces its own power as the mass public is seduced into thinking that the products they consume are unique and individualized. But who or what exactly comprises the culture industry? Whose intention is it to continually circulate these images and sounds that are supposedly the same? If Guy Debord conceives of “the world at once present and absent which the spectacle makes visible is the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived”, it seems increasingly difficult to appeal to the myth that in the smoky boardroom on the nth floor of some company X, twelve old men with sadistic smiles are the ones making top down decisions to keep the unfiltered masses in check. But if the circulated culture industry is in fact not the dissemination of power derived from a specific body of decision makers- if power cannot be located within a specific site, and the spectacle has come to replace this site of what is Real and tangible, is the culture industry, then, an autonomous subject concerned only with its own production and reproduction?

There is both excitement and anxiety in the possibilities of artificial life and cyborgs that simultaneously present McLuhan’s iconic terms “amputation” and “extension”. Current forms of artificial life exist in three capacities: software, hardware, and biochemistry. Each of these models is based on systems of digital organisms that, like human life, can adapt and evolve.

One form of artificial life is “art by choice” which Lev Manovich has described as an artificial life art that allows a programmed computer to manipulate and create images from which an artist selects a set of images which then breeds new images. A.I. systems can only perform pre-programmed actions given knowledge about its domain. Thus, it has not quite reached the ability to process what it encounters within its environment through an internal mode of representation and is only interested in relevant responses to its external world. While an artificial life form perfectly constructed on the model of a human has yet to exist, there nevertheless remains unease in the possibility that this A.I., the extension of man, could define and clarify its actions through a vocabulary of intentionalism and presumably have the capacity to operate outside of the rational bounds it was once confined to. This potentiality has long displaced the Orwellian conception of a vast and boundless consciousness industry and rendered it obsolete. George Orwell’s futuristic vision of the media was based on the possibility of a totalizing panoptic gaze emanating from a central point whereas in current times, not only are our new medias dialectical but we have to consider the possibility that the system of mediums themselves (such as mobile communication and email) might not possess the hard drive to handle or control from a central station the sheer number of messages communicated through that specific medium. While current models of digital organisms attempt to deal with these networks of communication statistically, it seems that a comprehensive system of control and supervision would require a monitoring apparatus larger than the system itself. Coupled with Foucault’s belief that “statements operate without reference to a cogito…It does not pose the question of the speaking subject who reveals or who conceals himself in what he says, who in speaking, exercises his sovereign freedom, or who, without realizing it, subjects himself to constraints of which he is only dimly aware. In fact, it is situated at the level of the “it is said” (i.e.: on dit), the question of agency and intentionality is only furthermore obscured in these new medias in terms of whom exactly the message was intended for and what in fact possesses intentionality within linked communications.

Josephine Lee