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Sunday, 29 July 2007

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JPool

There was just a brief mention of this affair on On the Media this week. They set the affair alongside the Pat Tillman revelations and the forth-coming accounts of civilian killings and other atrocities in the The Nation. It'll be interesting to see how they follow up on it, as the current brief mention seems to defer to TNR's announced investigation plans.

Accusations of concern trolling aside, the more I learn about this about this case, the more it seems likely that at least many of the objections to Beauchamp were manufactured and inflated by the right-wing blogoshpere. I don't think that really changes my reading of the discussion here, but it does reenforce the context that I had understood for it.

While I appreciate your response to the accusations against Beauchamp, I'm puzzled by the second point in your analysis, of the scarred woman story. If your hypothetical situation where both the anonymous posters who claim to contractors/soldiers and Beauchamp's account were correct, and the supposed beat down happens after we close curtain, that would make Beauchamp's account factually accurate but selective and deliberately misleading. How would that help?

Anyway, I look forward to the lit stuff.

Dave Burdick

Your analysis is interesting but not very persuasive. On the skull "fragment" part you left out the part of the story where he "found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit" A crown-sized "fragment" as he is describing sounds larger than the tiny fragment you suggest. While you may be able to parse some of this outlandish story and twist it like a pretzel into a barely plausible truth, you would have to suspend any rational thought or common sense to believe as Beauchmap writes "As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included." So in the entire company, everyone was bent over in laughter at the sight of this person desecrating a grave site. This after the all the crap came down about Abu Gharib. At some point, whether you're a liberal journalist or not, you have to be able to look at something like this and know you're not dealing with an account that resembles anything close to the truth.

Karl Steel

forth-coming accounts of civilian killings and other atrocities in the The Nation

Actually, these accounts are in the issue I just received. What it reports is pretty bad, but not as bad as I thought it would be; nonetheless, "pretty bad" does = civilians getting shot by Americans quite a bit.

Karl Steel

Dave: what? Once I trim back your overwrought prose and weird paraphrasing ("people" becomes "entire company," for instance), what I get is, "This is untrue because this emotional response is unlikely in the wake of Abu Ghraib." Not much of an argument there, Dave. Treating the body parts of what's identified as the enemy as trophies is far from uncommon in war.

marc page

I would like to cast a vote for a return to literary matters. Watching this parade of "partisan hacks" (JPool, I'm looking in your direction) pretend their only concern is for 'the TRUTH' has become numbingly repetitious.

Karl Steel

Dave, and the other doubters, I'm reminded of a column by Ezra Klein on CNN's suspicions about Sicko:

Here's a radical thought, though: Maybe if these mainstream media types were as incredulous towards the powerful as they are to Moore, his productions wouldn't pose a threat. After all, there's nothing wrong with fact-checking, and asking hard questions, and raising an oppositional eyebrow towards pabulum and propaganda. The problem isn't that the media is so quick to doubt Moore. It's that they're so trusting the rest of the time.

So, yeah, I applaud your incredulousness. I've no problem with the truth. But I wonder if you were equally concerned with getting the facts right in, say, 2002, before this iteration of the Iraq war, or in any number of rightist enthusiasms. I doubt it.

In other words, I don't trust your motive. You might say you're interested only in the truth, but

SEK

Marc, I don't think JPool's doing what you say he is: he's not a concern troll. Comments here all the time, actually. So I don't think you need to look in his direction. Dan, with whom I never agree, but always cordially, doesn't strike me as a concern troll either; Dave up above, however, yes, I smell the faint reek of concern trollery.

You've already nailed him on the slip from "people in the immediate vicinity" to "the entirety of Patton's Third Army, distracted from the important task of defeating evil Nazis, which is why Jews like me were never born." For example:

While you may be able to parse some of this outlandish story and twist it like a pretzel into a barely plausible truth, you would have to suspend any rational thought or common sense to believe as Beauchmap writes "As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included."

I would need to suspend "rational thought and common sense" to believe that a few war-weary soldiers might find a little black humor funny? No, I think the suspension is yours, and is the result of you fervently wishing that soldiers were automatons instead of humans, and thus were subject to forces civilians can't hope to understand, and respond in ways which sometimes offend us.

At some point, whether you're a liberal journalist or not, you have to be able to look at something like this and know you're not dealing with an account that resembles anything close to the truth.

Again, that's only so much wishful thinking. Look, we know soldiers sometimes lose it, abuse and torture prisoners, and snap pictures of the proceedings. However, much more common is the soldier who travels half-way around the world, kills someone for the first time in his life, finds a way to live with himself, and adopts a brand of black humor which you find offensive. Maybe this is why conservatives aren't up in arms about PTSD or the Walter Reed scandals: they prefer to believe in the ultra-modern philosophy of suck-it-the-fuck-up soldier. Wonderful in the abstract, that is, but when you know people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you see how war has changed them, you might come to a different conclusion.

Or you might dismiss me as an out-of-touch-ivory-tower-liberal. Probably will, in fact.

marc page

Well, JPool looked in my direction first, and I must say, it kind of creeped me out.

Maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive, but there's something about being called a "hack" that I find irritating.

SEK

Understandable, Marc, tensions have been flying high here ... yet another reason to return to the warm balm of academic self-loathing. As I forget every time I venture over to Protein Wisdom, political debates typically devolve into who repeats the same thing the longest, and I just don't have the stamina for it anymore.

Rich Puchalsky

Let's not forget that Protein Wisdom's textual analysis was just as bad as its politics. Switching to academia wouldn't help, really.

marc page

Ah, "the warm balm of academic self-loathing" ... like letters from home.

But, you know, I've never been entirely certain that "Protein Wisdom's textual analysis" isn't intended as parody.

Karl Steel

Let's not forget that Protein Wisdom's textual analysis was just as bad as its politics.

You know what's distressing? Over at Ezra Klein's place, one of his regular guesters, Neil the Ethical Werewolf, wrote a post in favor of 'intent' in interpretation. Aargh. I thought about writing a rebuttal, and then I thought: why not finish the dissertation today? Why not finish reading The Truth of Zizek (heartily recommended to both Holbo and Kotsko)? Why not just fall asleep in the bathroom? Aargh (<-- sound I make when falling asleep).

Rich Puchalsky

Karl, perhaps no one else around here seems interested, but I'd be interested in your rebuttal. (You can make it short-form to save time.) When I analyze a text, I often find it helpful to construct a sort of Model Author (a term from Umberto Eco), and theorize an intent for this author that helps to make sense of the text -- but I don't think that this need have anything to do with the real intent of the real author. However, I'm also predisposed towards treating interviews and the like as additions to texts; if the author is interviewed as saying "When I wrote book X I meant to do Y", I think that it's often helpful (though not obligatory) to take that into account.

I do think that there are elementary facts about texts that people don't seem to take into account often enough that could come under the heading of intent (though not in the ridiculously inflated form often seen). For instance, if you're reading a book of fiction, there are really only a limited number of conscious or unconscious motivations for an author to have written and a publisher to have published one.

Karl Steel

Short form, which allows me more holes than usual. First I think of what someone over at the Valve said, viz., that we should be analyzing texts, not people. Then I think of a few examples that strike me as particularly hard to comprehend by thinking of intent: say, Macbeth, where there's good evidence for quite different versions being performed on different occasions (which version represents Sspeare's 'intent'?), or Wordworth's Prelude, because of its continuous revisions, or Frankenstein (with the intervention of Percy into Mary's work), or William Langland's Piers Plowman, whose interpretation is difficult for many, many reasons: it might be pseudonymous, there are several versions of the text around, each quite different (the A, B, C, and maybe Z versions), and within those versions, we have differences, perhaps representing different stages of Langland's writing, perhaps representing the interventions of scribes, professional or not, who each had his or her own reasons for reading (where writing in manuscript culture is a kind of reading) Piers Plowman in a certain way.

Where does 'intent' get us with such works? Not very far, at least not very far so long as 'intent' means what some individual author wanted to do. Let's set aside the obvious poststructuralist suspicions about the unity of the subject and the obvious psychoanalytic suspicions about the unity of intent: I'm not saying this stuff is bad or boring; I'm saying we can all fill in the blanks easily here.

I'm more interested, right now, in how we do a intentional reading of a text from an alien culture, say, that of late 14th-century London. Even if we have an author whose biography we know pretty well, like Chaucer, and we have a good guess about what might have motivated him to write something, to understand that motive, we need to immerse ourselves in the particulars of his culture(s), his historical moment(s), and even the means of production and distribution for poetry. Then I suppose we need to determine how to distinguish Chaucer from his milieu(x), if such a thing is possible. Once we start doing that, we're miles away from any unitary or even binary intent; we're into questions of psychological and historical agency, we're into questions of readership and interpretation, and we're doing, in short, what we should be doing as literary scholars.

And if we say, well, okay, we at least know our own culture: but why not take what we (have to) do with Chaucer as a model for unsettling our confidence in the knowledge of our own culture and own selves? But you knew I'd say something like this.

In short, intent strikes me as a thickheaded panacea (let alone as a silent ally of neo-liberalism because of its assurance in the straightforwardness of individual agency) for the complex, insatiable, unending task--and joy--of interpretation.

How's that?

Bizarro Karl

thickheaded panacea

That's weird.

marc page

On the subject of an author's (alleged) intent, I have often pointed to "The Waste Land." (Arguably the finest poem of the 20th century; certainly one of the premier Modernist texts.) Anyway, when asked early on, the most Eliot would 'cop to' on the question of meaning/intent was that it was "a rhythmical grumble against life." As the Eliot Industry began to grow, several critics unearthed Eliot's 'True Intent': -- to express the disillusion of his generation in the aftermath of World War I.

More recently, a very persuasive reading (-- the author's name escapes me for the moment) gives us the poet describing his own difficult marriage.

So, whatever Eliot believed he intended, can the text itself intend some of the above? all of the above? without the conscious awareness of its author? I think so, particularly if, as suggested above, we consider "the historical moment," the author's health (physical and mental), etc.

The Goldsteins (as much as I can make out) seem to be insisting that the author has a singular, conscious, clear intent for his text, and that the reader is not allowed to speculate. Almost as if we, the readers, must do something like Holden Caulfield imagined, and if we have any questions, get the author on the telephone and have him dictate his intent for us.

Of course, look at the recent suggestion from the RightWing about Mr. Beauchamp: since he aspired to be a writer, he is therefore predisposed to be a liar. (All writers who are not conservative naturally being liars, you understand.)

So, if I could ask Mr. Eliot for the True Intent of his poem "The Waste Land", would he tell me the truth? Would he know the truth?

marc page

On the subject of an author's (alleged) intent, I have often pointed to "The Waste Land." (Arguably the finest poem of the 20th century; certainly one of the premier Modernist texts.) Anyway, when asked early on, the most Eliot would 'cop to' on the question of meaning/intent was that it was "a rhythmical grumble against life." As the Eliot Industry began to grow, several critics unearthed Eliot's 'True Intent': -- to express the disillusion of his generation in the aftermath of World War I.

More recently, a very persuasive reading (-- the author's name escapes me for the moment) gives us the poet describing his own difficult marriage.

So, whatever Eliot believed he intended, can the text itself intend some of the above? all of the above? without the conscious awareness of its author? I think so, particularly if, as suggested above, we consider "the historical moment," the author's health (physical and mental), etc.

The Goldsteins (as much as I can make out) seem to be insisting that the author has a singular, conscious, clear intent for his text, and that the reader is not allowed to speculate. Almost as if we, the readers, must do something like Holden Caulfield imagined, and if we have any questions, get the author on the telephone and have him dictate his intent for us.

Of course, look at the recent suggestion from the RightWing about Mr. Beauchamp: since he aspired to be a writer, he is therefore predisposed to be a liar. (All writers who are not conservative naturally being liars, you understand.)

So, if I could ask Mr. Eliot for the True Intent of his poem "The Waste Land", would he tell me the truth? Would he know the truth?

marc page

Oh crap, I'm sorry. Please believe me when I say, as the author of that boring comment, I had no conscious intent of posting it twice.

Rich Puchalsky

Interesting, Karl. (I agree that we can fill in the blanks easily enough.)

I don't think that textual variation in itself says much about anything but a very naive version of intent. When I look at a text, I assume that it is a product of many "authors", including the people who copied it, who may have introduced errors -- and those count as intent as much as anything does. For instance, there's a PKD book, The Unteleported Man, that was published in a version expanded from its original magazine publication (as PKD wanted) but with four pages missing, because he'd died and no one could find them. The missing four pages make it, in my opinion, probably a better book than it would have been with them, because the make the ending of a PKD book that's already about multiple versions of reality even more radically indeterminate. But the version with pages missing was created through a version of intent that isn't much like intent is usually thought of: by, perhaps, the intent of the publisher to go ahead despite the missing pages.

(The textual history of this book is complicated: see here and here if interested.) If you want the version with gaps, you need to buy a specific Berkley Books edition. The Gollancz edition as "Lies, Inc." contained some frankly horrible connecting paragraphs by John Sladek, and should be avoided. There was a later Vintage edition that contains the original four pages, which had in the interim been found.)

In any case, with a weak definition of intent, you can say that any text that you are not the first to read involves some human intent -- even if you're looking at found poems, or randomly generated text from a computer program, someone had to decide to select that text to send to you. But that doesn't seem to be intent as the people who are into intent think of it.

SEK

Karl, I met Neil the Ethical Werewolf at UnfoggeDCon, and he struck me as amenable to nuance. (He and Jeff Goldstein make odd bedfellows.) When I saw that post, I was too tired to respond, esp. since any response would require a commitment to slowly walking through the difficulties of transitioning from ordinary to literary language, &c.

There was an interesting psychological study about "found art" which, predictably, I can't seem to find right now; but the sum of it was that if someone took a picture of an object of found art, people attributed intention to the photographer; if someone then described that photograph, they attributed it to that author; if someone restaged the piece based on the description of the photograph, &c.

Not that this means intentionalist arguments are necessarily any good, only that since intentionalism is the default setting, it should be incorporated into the discussion. Very few people dismiss it altogether. Your argument, in fact, may as well be mine. Only I'd call it "intentionalist."

But I love reading radical anti-intentionalist tracts which cite sources, for I am an asshole.

thickheaded panacea

That's weird.

I happen to like Guinness.

Marc:

[W]hatever Eliot believed he intended, can the text itself intend some of the above? all of the above? without the conscious awareness of its author?

I love the phrase "whatever Eliot believed he intended," because that captures the problem perfectly. If you limit intention to conscious intent, you end up stuck with a paradigm in which saying "I'm not a racist" must be taken at face value, even if you write a racist novel like The Clansman. Karl captures the complexity a little better than I can manage today -- despite my intentions, I'm feeling slight and muddleheaded today. That arduous reconstruction occurs implicitly for strict intentionalists, which is why the argument against the New Critics -- that they didn't need to look outside the text because they already possessed the knowledge they refused their students the latitude to use -- always worked for me.

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