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Foci of Intention and Black Boxes
This started out as a Madoka post, but I think it will have to be the prolegomena for a future one.

In the West we’ve tended in the last 100 years or so to consider works of art (I’m thinking particularly of literature, but much of this would apply to music too, and to the visual arts) in two different ways: either as an expression of some idea, mood, state of being, etc., on the part of their creators or as autonomous aesthetic objects, to be considered without regard to where they came from or what anyone meant by them. Most literary critical movements can be lined up broadly under one or other of those headings: Freudians, Liberal Humanists, Feminists to the left, please – no jostling! - Structuralists and New Critics to the right.

“Intentional” reading

Those who think of art as human expression normally assume some kind of intention behind it, though this intention need not be fully conscious, nor necessarily articulable in language. The idea of a work of art that lacks any intention is troubling to them. Hence a piece of music generated by a computer will, however beautiful “in itself”, be less satisfying to them than an identical piece of music written by a human composer. A while ago there was a lengthy debate between John Searle and the critics Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels concerning the (im)possibility of meaning without intention. If the stones cast on the beach by the sea happened to fall in a pattern that spelt out one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, would that be a poem, or would it merely “resemble” one? I’m not going to be drawn: the fact that such a debate could even be thought worth having makes the point I need here – that there are people for whom intention is criterial to judging whether something is a work of art (or even meaningful at all), and a sense of intention is criterial to a fulfilling experience of art.

What I am interested in is where intention is located for people who feel this way. In literature, the usual location for intention is assumed to be the author’s mind. Even this is far from being a problem-free description, of course: the author’s intention evolves over time as the work is written; ideas occur during composition and are changed during editing. It may even be that the author goes back and revises published works, imposing on them a new intention: is that more, or less, “authentic” than the earlier ones? Or should we say that the new version is not the same work of art at all? But let that pass too for the moment. For the purpose of this discussion, the author’s mind might be called the “focus of intention” in the minds of many readers.

In collaborative works, the focus of intention is not so easy to locate. Take a feature film, for example: the director, producer, actors, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, etc., all contribute to the work of art, so locating and delimiting the focus of intention is far less straightforward than in the case of the novel. (And even the novel, of course, has – in addition to the author’s mind in its numerous aspects – various editors, agents, friends and family, and the other usual suspects of the Acknowledgements page, all suggesting a rather more “distributed” model of authorship, and thus of intention.)

In the case of films, there is a convention – perhaps no more than a comforting fiction, for people who like their focus of intention narrowed conveniently to one human head – of treating directors as authors – or auteurs. Hence, in bibliographies it is the director’s name that is listed first, with others mentioned only if the context requires. This isn’t to say that directors don’t have an important role to play – perhaps the most important – but only to note that those who enjoy cinema may feel more comfortable thinking of a film as being “by Fellini”.

In other contexts, we may feel happy to expand the focus of intention. When we listen to “A Hard Day’s Night”, we may focus our sense of intention on Lennon as the song’s writer, or on the Beatles as a group, bestowing on them a kind of collective group intention. Depending on context, we may even expand beyond the Fab Four to include others with a hand in the recording, such as George Martin, who not only produced it but played the piano. The focus of intention may grow or shrink, in other words, depending on context and what questions we’re interested in.

How much wider can the focus of intention get? Quite a bit, I think. When I see commenters on Madoka’s style of animation say things like “That’s just Shaft [the studio that made the show] being Shaft”, then it surely includes the whole studio, with its distinctive approach to anime. The intention behind Madoka includes that, as well as whatever was going through the head of the Urobuchi (the writer) or Shinbo (the director). Or, for a far better known example, muse on the concept of “Disneyfication”.

Perhaps more controversially – and this will be my jumping off point for the next proper Madoka post, so I’ll just flag it here as a reminder to myself – we might see the focus of intention expanding to include fandom itself, through its transformative fictions, its speculations, and the overall reception of the show.

Black Boxes and Autonomist Reading

The focus of intention has more than one function, but an important one involves the way the “intentional” mode of reading interacts with the “autonomous” mode, in which we consider the art work as an autonomous aesthetic object. For, pace the critics, I don’t believe intentionalists and autonomists (for want of better names) are discrete groups of readers (or viewers, or listeners, or whatever). Incompatible as the literary theories supporting them may be, I suspect that as readers we are normally both simultaneously, and indeed that in practice the two modes are fundamentally connected.

Engineers and computer programmers talk about “black boxes”: a notional box with certain inputs and certain outputs. There may be many different engineering solutions to the problem of converting those inputs into the required outputs, but the point about a black box is that doesn’t matter which solution has been adopted: that process is opaque. I think that the autonomist position requires us to put the work of art into a kind of black box. “Yes, some process went on to produce this work, but what matters is the output, the work, so let’s not get distracted with the question of how it came to be” – would be the pure autonomist position. I don’t suppose many people read in quite that spirit – the opacity of artistic black boxes is never total – but constructing a black box is one way we mentally “frame” a use of language (or sound, or physical space) so that we can recognize it as an art work at all. (Note that this contrasts with and contradicts the demand noted above that classifying something as a work of art should imply ascribing an intention to it.)

My contention is that the construction of these black boxes is in fact intimately connected to the focus of intention.

I’ll give a Madoka-related example to illustrate what I mean. Someone mentioned on a fan board recently that the Faust references in Madoka, which include graffiti quotations from Goethe, did not originate with the show’s writer, Urobuchi. It was the design team, noticing some of the parallels the story had with Faust (most notably in the idea of a contract that costs one’s soul) who made that connection, and then incorporated Faustian motifs into the show. For the fan reporting it, this information tended to invalidate the Faustian elements. Because they didn’t come from the mind of Urobuchi, they weren’t an integral element but a bolted-on extra designed to flatter pseudo-intellectual otaku. For this poster, the show’s focus of intention was narrowly centred on the mind of Urobuchi himself, and anything (at least to do with the plot) that came from elsewhere was less authentic, less integral, and thus less fit to be considered part of the autonomous aesthetic object called Madoka.

Now, I happen not to see it that way. For me, the focus of intention includes the whole production team, and indeed the studio: I think of Madoka primarily as a Shaft show rather than an Urobuchi show. Consequently, what goes on within Shaft exists in a “black box”: it doesn’t matter that the Faustian references got added late in the process, or by whom, any more than it would have mattered to the poster had Urobuchi thought of them himself in a late draft rather than an early one. The difference in the foci of intention makes us see this feature of the show in very different lights.

I could multiply examples, but that will have to do, since I’m tired. I’m still thinking these things through, anyway. However, my tl;dr hypothesis is this: that even though intentionalist and autonomist positions tend to be viewed as incompatible, in reading practice they are intimately connected, because the focus of intention largely determines the dimensions of the "black box" that allows us to enjoy the work as art.

Curiously, I am currently reading a book on the origins of WW1 which discusses the fallacy of considering nations as monolithic entities with single personalities and intentions. It then goes in to all the major powers involved to discuss, so who did shape its foreign policy and what were the balancing internal forces?

"Design team" is hardly limited to film. Children's picture books are not the only literature where the artist is a full co-creator of the general effect with the writer. Farmer Giles of Ham, to which Baynes's contribution was enthusiastically hailed by Tolkien. In the early 1960s, some stories by Jack Vance won the Hugo largely, it's believed, thanks to the contributions made by the illustrations by Jack Gaughan.

That's an interesting analogy with countries. I've often been struck by the wide use of synecdoche when describing the actions of governments ("Washington did this," "Number 10 said that"): one could describe that as being in the service of black-boxing, perhaps.

Another belated drive-by comment: I was struck, when researching English history, by the way that the process used to happen almost in reverse, with monarchs/aristocracy/etc being referred to by the names of the lands they ruled. Elizabeth I was "England," the Duke of Norfolk was "Norfolk," etc. That could be seen as mapping the realms to the specific individuals (which would make sense according to the thought of the time), while the modern usage might be mapping a large group of people to the nations they serve.

"I am dying, Egypt, dying."

Synecdoche is a strangely commutative figure: the part for the whole or the whole for the part. I can't off-hand think of another that has that quality.

Yes, I went back and forth as to whether the aristocratic version maps the realm onto the individual, or vice versa. I ultimately came down on the former, but I think there's an argument to be made both ways.

Interestingly, I don't think it's as symmetrical in the modern version. People get subsumed into the gestalt that is Washington or Number Ten or whatever, but they are not (individually) seen as personifying the nation in the same way.

Fascinating. I must read this again and think on it.

I'm glad you found it of interest!

You always do some very thoughtful pieces.


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